Happy hangover to you!

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on June 12, 2020

Liquor stores are back in business; your favourite watering holes could be next. And if you end up drinking one too many — in celebration or despair — do not fret. Our comprehensive hangover guide, with tips and trivia from across centuries and countries, will see you through

* In 500 BCE, Greeks invented an anti-hangover god called Pausikrepalos (“pause the hangover”)

* Bloody Mary, invented in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, has been unanimously claimed as the perfect pick-me-up for the hungover

* Scientists in Japan are believed to be experimenting with a chemical called dihydromyricetin to create a permanent fix for hangovers

* Eastern Europeans rarely face hangovers since they stick to vodka which, being a clear spirit, lacks congeners (a hangover-inducing substance in beverages that have a strong colour)

As lockdowns get unlocked, I predict hangovers. When bars reboot, there will be natural tendencies towards celebrating how we won and Corona lost (footnote: Not the beer brand; that may find it hard to make a comeback). Those who adhered strictly to rules and avoided bootlegged hooch may tipple over-enthusiastically and wake up with a Kafkaesque feeling of having morphed into cockroaches whose Spotify is stuck on a repeat of that drone we never want to hear again: Show me the way to the next whiskey bar... Recognise that feeling?

Certain languages define hangovers humorously. In the lingo of German beer enthusiasts it’s called katzenjammer, which, in translation, means a gazillion out-of-tune cats jamming with Mozart. In Sweden, it’s betongkeps (roughly meaning “bitumen topi”), while Italians simply name it postumi or, what do you expect after the 13th bottle? But if we examine matters scientifically, hangovers aren’t necessarily evil. First, hangover can, according to the dictionary, be termed our cultural heritage — “something that remains from what is past” — so we should treat ours like we treat uncles and other historical monuments. Second, even if we try to focus our double-vision on the other lexical definition — “disagreeable effects following heavy consumption” — the issue has been examined and resolved by experts time and again.

Indeed, hangovers are as antediluvian as civilisation itself and an inextricable part of it, because, throughout history, drinking has been seen both as a problem and a solution. In the alcohol manufacturing process, harmful bacteria die; so even if our ancestors didn’t exactly know that wine exterminated pathogens, they noticed that those who preferred plain water often died from excruciating diseases such as typhoid while drunkards generally only suffered headaches from enjoying life.

So, to feel morning badness is to be part of history in a way one rarely is on a normal morning. Scholars believe humanity discovered the joys of drunkenness long before it discovered it had brains, when people were but evolved monkeys licking up the juice of fermented fruits. Then one brainy forefather started manufacturing alcohol 9,000 years ago (archaeological evidence points to China), a moment which coincides with the first steps towards civilisation. Instead of waiting for rotten fruits to drop from trees, people built villages around primitive booze plants, settling wherever it was possible to grow whatever it was that went into their favourite tipple.

Within the next couple of millennia we abandoned nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles in favour of farming; instead of roaming the Earth we laid claim to it, forming nations and urbanising. Religions were born as Greeks got into viticulture, wining in honour of gods such as Dionysus — adapted by Romans as Bacchus — while the Bible informs us that Noah was the first “to plant a vineyard” on the slopes of Mount Ararat (Turkey) after the great flood. Here we (coincidentally, really?) encounter the oldest literary reference (Genesis 9:21) to a truly bad hangover: After extensively testing his produce, Noah got so grumpy when he woke up that it resulted in the so-called Curse of Ham, where he eternally cursed his grandson and the lad’s offspring.

The philosophical-minded Greeks recognised this perilous malady, named it kraipalē and, in 500 BCE, invented an anti-hangover god called Pausikrepalos (“pause the hangover”) while some centuries later the more scientific-minded Romans, in medical treatises, adapted that Greek terminology as crapulosus (to label specific wines that should be drunk with caution). This is why we moderns still talk of feeling crapulous. At that particular time, the city of Rome alone consumed 150 million litres of wine per year (which mathematically works out to a daily bottle per liver) so they obviously needed methods for curing the furies. Techniques included munching boiled cabbage before drinking and watering down wine as the jar emptied so that the last dregs were virtually wine-flavoured water; if they still suffered afterwards, they’d slurp raw owl eggs and chew on pickled sheep eyes, according to Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79).

The Dark Ages are attributed to northern European barbarians who attacked Rome for its wines (and hangover cures). That shady era ended when the defenders of England, having fortified themselves with too much alcohol the night before, lost the Battle of Hastings to the Viking-descended Normans in 1066. As Europe started rebuilding its civilisation, medieval hangovers were fixed by foods such as raw eel sprinkled with bitter almonds or ammonia-pickled dried killer snakes, which made alcoholics reconsider their chosen path. More sensible doctors advocated herbal teas, still favoured in parts of the world.


The hangover itself was named thus in 1900 and it is no coincidence that the working and middle classes had come into existence, facilitating a growth in bartending (the cocktail was invented in the US in the 1800s) and resulting in a distinctive “drinking culture”. Sufferers who experienced morning fog spoke of flu-like symptoms. This flu, which made Mondays into low-productivity days at assembly lines, caused a money-minded industrial society to focus on abolishing hangovers with solutions ranging from temperance or prohibition to physical exercise and rehydration (alcohol, a diuretic, drains the body; and if the brain lacks water the result is that hammering headache).

Others proposed the hair-of-the-dog treatment in the form of bar staple Bloody Mary, invented in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, probably by a bartender who often served Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway. It’s been unanimously claimed as the perfect pick-me-up, its classic edition made with tomato juice rich in antioxidants and vitamins, spiced with Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and pepper that have pain-killing functions, while salt encourages the said rehydration, and vodka is a virtually hangover-free alcohol — all of this, in theory at least, battling the toxic by-products that accumulate as the body metabolises the previous day’s fun. Incidentally, if one needs a pick-me-up, one fits the text-book definition of an alcoholic.

Slam down: Bloody Mary, a cocktail invented in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, is a sure-fire hangover cure   -  ISTOCK.COM


Creative alcoholics minimised their malaise creatively. Van Gogh drank absinthe, which was invented in a Swiss laboratory in 1792 as a herbal alcohol-based panacea, but soon turned into a popular mind-altering hallucinogen that made artists spot green fairies. Rock star Keith Richards of Jack Daniel’s fame beat the blues with a lethal-sounding cocktail of Pepsi, instant coffee, antacids and non-prescription painkillers.

Many, such as novelist Kingsley Amis, also gave it intellectual thought. Amis devoted several books to his drinking, not to mention the hangovers he subjected his characters to. Take Lucky Jim, whose “mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night”. In his seminal volume On Drink (1972), he discusses the metaphysical aspects (regret, sadness, guilt, shame, self-hatred, anxiety and so on) as well as his research into possible solutions. Rather counter-intuitively, he thinks that starting the day with unsweetened acidic juice or eating a sour citric fruit helps, though more wisely he also proposes a lot of water. He then substitutes breakfast with a mixture of beef-broth and vodka at about 11am, followed by a bitter liqueur at noon, after which one might consider a light non-greasy lunch. Interestingly, he thus rejects the folksy English cure, the fat-rich ‘full English breakfast’ which, in its hangover avatar, includes blood pudding and its Scottish cousin, the ‘fry-up’ made of scary things such as sheep offal. Anyhow, Amis next proposes fresh air while gazing at sculptures and spending the rest of the day reading a carefully curated list of literature: First, gloomy poetry such as the last pages of Paradise Lost, next a grim Russian novel to put the self-pity in perspective, followed by a pulpy thriller to revive the will to live, rounding off with comic writing such as PG Wodehouse so as to make it seem stupid not to be happy.

Wodehouse, incidentally, was also interested in hangovers (of which he recorded six levels from Broken Compass to Gremlin Boogie) and let his fictional master-butler Jeeves (in a story published in 1916) put together an explosive medicament that seems to be the precursor of aforementioned Bloody Mary: Tomato juice, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red chilli and a raw egg — this last element echoes the Plinian owl egg. South African professional drinkers actually go for ostrich egg omelettes, each of which equals 24 chicken eggs, and it is of course well known that both the martini-swigging James Bond and his vodka-loving creator Ian Fleming virtually lived on eggs.

Size matters: South Africa cracks large ostrich eggs — each equal to 24 chicken eggs — to make hangover omelette   -  ISTOCK.COM


(Though Daniel Craig, who currently essays 007 on screen, downs a bottle of children’s diarrhoea medicine Pedialyte, which is the self-medication preferred by many of his Hollywood colleagues as well.) Another egg-based eye-opener is the American Prairie Oyster, named so because one mustn’t break the yolk when pouring it into a glass before seasoning it with Tabasco, salt, pepper and, sometimes, animal testicles. It must be said, though, that it is more common for Donald Trump’s subjects to end bar-hopping with greasy cheeseburgers to mitigate their suffering.

Shake and stir: Actor Daniel Craig plays the martini-swigging secret service agent James Bond. While the fictional Bond relies on eggs to cure hangovers, Craig downs a children’s rehydration drink to beat morning-after blues   -  REUTERS/STEFAN WERMUTH



Willy-nilly, Shakespeare
  • Around the time Shakespeare lived, the most popular tavern in London was the Mermaid, one of the first almost-modern ale halls of England and the precursor of today’s public houses. Many of the city’s writers frequented the place and this would be where one would expect to spot Willie after the night’s show.
  • The “hair of the dog that bit you” treatment is frequently claimed to have been coined by Shakespeare himself on a day when he woke up feeling like a shaggy dog. There’s certainly a whole lot of fermented grape juice in his dramas — “falser than vows made in wine” is one memorable line that comes to mind — and sober-thinking scholars have detected approximately 360 other references to boozing or its after-effects in his collected works.
  • But, interestingly, almost 2,000 years earlier, the Greek comedy writer Antiphanes (400 BCE) had a rhyme that went something like “take the hair, it is well written, of the dog by which you’re bitten”, suggesting that uncorking one more amphora of wine might just about undo the excesses of the night before. Then, again, as is known, Shakespeare was a frequent borrower of good ideas — perhaps especially on sluggish mornings when his quill kept hanging and crashing.

As we are beginning to fathom, different cultures have evolved their own treatments. In Scandinavia, which has a “healthy” drinking culture, the Danes line their stomachs with fatty pork before bingeing as it slows the alcohol absorption; and if despite this they wake up with what they call “carpenters in the head”, they swig a “reparation beer”. Norwegians, who pay abnormally high rates to drink, eat lyefish (aged cod) that’s so disgusting they’ll not want to drink for another week, thus saving money.

Eastern Europeans rarely face hangovers since they stick to vodka which, being a clear spirit, lacks congeners (a hangover-inducing substance in beverages that have a strong colour). If at all they face problems later, they guzzle the liquid from jars of pickled gherkin sometimes mixing in more vodka; the salty brine promotes rehydration. Curiously, the KGB, despite this, developed pills to make agents alcohol-resistant, but nobody wanted to use them because not getting drunk made the drinking itself pointless. The selfsame pill is widely used in Hollywood today.

The French solution for bad-hair days, which my expert informant tells me are known as tête-de-bois (“wooden head”), is to stay in bed until the coiffure cures itself, while their former colony Canada swears by poutine, which is salty French fries mixed with cheesy gravy. Further south, the Mexicans are in favour of spicy tripe chilli stew or menudo, which scientists believe might function psychologically by trading headache for a stomach problem. (Even Greeks and Turks trust tripe.) Other Latin Americans eat ceviche, a seafood appetiser in strong marinade (or just the marinade if the seafood is too revolting), or spicy chicken soup known as aguadito de pollo, while poorer people chew coca leaves or cola nuts to cure every imaginable illness including hangovers. (Note to Keith Richards: The flavours used in cola-based drinks are synthetic imitations and won’t work).

Despite the fact that prehistoric Middle Easterners pioneered both beer- and wine-making and the word alcohol itself stems from the Arabic al-Kuhul, as is known, Muslims are theoretically against it. Yet there are interesting cures there — a Baghdadi 10th-century cookbook prescribes watering down one’s drink with lemon juice, which reduces drunkenness, and to cook a stew, kishkiyya, the morning after, a flavour-rich oily porridge of ground wheat and meat.

Further east, the Chinese let the antioxidants of green tea work their wonders while the Japanese traditionally mix their morning rice with green tea and seaweed into a porridge, or drink plenty of miso (a fermented probiotic broth), though scientists in Japan are believed to be experimenting with a chemical called dihydromyricetin to create a permanent fix. Koreans are developing asparagus extracts and canned alder-leaf teas said to do the same, while time-honoured cures include kimchi (veg pickle) and a hangover soup of boiled bones, veggies and caked ox blood. Mongolians have an even bloodier cure: Vodka, tomato juice and pickled sheep eyes to restore blurry vision. Thais go simpler, just order ‘drunken noodles’ for breakfast — a spicy stir-fried dish known as pad kee mao. An Australian drunkard I met in a bar eats, like all his countrymen, Vegemite — which is a waste product from beer brewing, essentially the vitamin-rich yeast scraped off the barrel bottoms — spread on toast, and then continues drinking.


Finally, coming to India, even if the #2 Google search (after “soothing songs by Prateek Kuhad”) currently might be “hangover cure”, tradition has handed down many solutions for the times one feels as if an elephant has crawled in through one’s ear. For example, gin and tonic (G&T) was invented in colonial India simply to prevent malaria, but it turned out to avert scurvy and hangovers among sailors who were vital in ferrying India’s riches to England; Churchill himself felt that plentiful G&T was the way to keep troops in mental health.

Then there’s Ayurveda, which teaches that although being sober should be our aim, in case one drinks, it’s best not to do so in the hot season (which reduces the body’s capacity to handle alcohol), drink only in moderation (especially if your dosha isn’t kapha), and consume naturally prepared alcohol, which points to traditional beverages such as South Indian palm toddy, rice beer in the Northeast, mainland tribes’ mahua, or Goan feni. Ayurvedic practitioners sensibly recommend that vomiting up the drink before it has negative effects isn’t a bad idea — the longer alcohol remains in the body, the more harm it does. The day after, provided you do wake up, go for fruit juices or lassi, followed by a facial massage. Nowadays most neighbourhood pharmacies stock herbal tablets that contain various natural compounds that prevent nausea and pain.

Tipple-totaller: A member of the Tiwa tribe in Karbi Anglong, Assam, enjoys his fill of rice beer. The brew is immensely popular in all the states of Northeast India   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR


Technically speaking, electrolyte-boosting is crucial. Tender coconut water does that, and rehydrates sufferers faster than any canned sports drink, making it the #1 restorative. Other conventional options include buttermilk with rock salt, honey-lemon-ginger tea, rice gruel (kanji was recommended already by the Buddha himself for its restorative benefits), lots of bananas, chewing mint leaves, or wolfing down a huge bowl of palak paneer — all easy to digest and containing various substances (minerals, vitamins, electrolytes) that set chemical imbalances right. For those who prefer a spicier macho cure, it is said that mulligatawny soup — basically rasam — followed by vigorous yoga and breathing exercises does it.

So, as we see, the entire world seems to have been working throughout history towards our salvation. Whether the cures work or not is another question. For example, fatty breakfasts may induce a heart attack, which stops a hangover for good as it were, but then you’d miss out on all tomorrow’s parties. Most painkillers are toxic and, in the long run, cause more harm than good to the liver. Caffeinated beverages make you feel better, but caffeine is a diuretic, which hampers rehydration.

However, the things that no hangover hack can fix are the embarrassments you caused when drunk by saying what you now regret (unless your drinking companions are prone to memory loss) and wish for another lockdown so as not to have to face the world. If that’s the case, the altogether most radical solution was suggested by MK Gandhi, who, during a speech on prohibition reported by The Hindu in 1927, said: “I have seen many friends losing self-control when they drink. They are first-class men. But when they drink they become asses. It may be excusable to have spirituous liquor in countries near the North Pole. There is no need in this country at all for drink.” In essence, then, either stop drinking or go live on the North Pole if you must.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

Published on June 12, 2020

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