Get High On Your Own Supply

India has a long tradition of local alcohols that are celebrated within their communities, but remain lesser known outside. Simrit Malhi writes about a few local brews to add to your collection this year.

When you think of countries with a hearty drinking tradition, India does not come to mind. However, we have a long and colourful history of brewing our own hooch. Megasthenes wrote about the existence of rice beer in India while he was the ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya back in 300 BC. The Vedic god of Saudharmakalpa, Indra was believed to have a soft spot for a drink made of rice and sugarcane – an elixir that powered his army. During the reign of our subsequent kings – including the Mughals – recreational drinking was prevalent and, due to low alcohol content, widely accepted. Kings, soldiers and the rich nobility, would drink grape-based wines, while the poor drank homemade brews made from millet, wheat or barley.

 Mandirithop Toddy Shop, Kerala. Photo credit Saina Jayapal

Mandirithop Toddy Shop, Kerala. Photo credit Saina Jayapal

But our colonisers changed all that. The Portuguese introduced us to their sweet ports, the British distributed rations of gin to Indian soldiers, and we eventually got our first vineyards and breweries. Slowly, homemade brews gave way to high alcohol distilled drinks and India got saddled with a ‘drinking’ problem. For almost 50 years, upto two decades after Independence, alcohol was banned in vast swathes of India.

But this is, after all, the birthplace of jugaad. Liquor was made in fields and farms across the country, and nobody really stopped drinking. ‘Uneducated’ rural farmers made the subtlest of alcohols, teasing out sugar from the most unlikely grains.

This time around, however, alcohol was further distilled to mimic the stronger alcohols that people had now developed a taste for. Distilling requires you to cook the ‘crude’ naturally fermented drink so that only the alcohol evaporates – which is then cooled back to liquid form, and collected in its purer state. Distillers used what grew in their farms – mostly rice or grain, but often in pairings with orange, lemon, and sugarcane; sometimes even coffee and fennel. For the most part, it was good; occasionally there would be battery liquid thrown in. These alcohol-related deaths gave country liquor a bad rap. Still, India freed its markets and Prohibition was repealed in almost every state in the country. And slowly, a heavily branded Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) industry started to overtake local hooch.

 Feni, local to the state of Goa, is made from cashew apples or coconut.

Feni, local to the state of Goa, is made from cashew apples or coconut.

Not surprisingly, old traditions of brewing alcohol remain intact in those states where alcohol is banned: Manipur, Nagaland, Gujarat and Bihar. Drinking traditions or not – India loves it liquor. The state’s Chief Minister once called Nagaland the ‘wettest dry state in the country’.  

THE SECRET ELEMENT

So, how are these local alcohols made?

First, choose anything with a naturally occurring sugar/starch or glucose element – it could be banana, rice, wheat, grapes or potatoes. Ferment this starch element using yeast, which ‘eats’ the sugars, and releases alcohol and carbon dioxide. Chaang uses starch in rice; toddy uses the sweetness of the coconut. But finding something sweet or starchy isn’t the problem – the ingredient that works the magic is yeast.

The recipes for the yeast starter-cultures were closely guarded secrets. Made from a variety of medicinal herbs and seeds, these recipes are enmeshed in a tapestry of magical and mythical stories. In the Northeast especially, each tribe has its own secret recipe that is unique to community, passed down from generation to generation. The matriarch of the family is often the keeper of these recipes. The plants used in the brewing of Chaang in Ladakh are, for example, amongst the most virulently poisonous plants known, Aconitum, and there is great danger in trying to replicate the traditional recipe without a tribe elder showing you how.

Very often, you don’t need the yeast at all. Take toddy: the sap collected from the cut flower of a palm tree is so sweet, and the climate it grows in so warm, the nectar spontaneously begins fermenting. A delicious glass of a light, sweet wine with 4% alcohol content is ready in a few hours. Toddy, or more technically, palm wine, is usually allowed to ferment longer – up to a day – which makes for a stronger drink, that sour and more acidic. Often, the sweeter, less alcoholic morning toddy is mixed with the more potent evening batch, resulting in a deliciously sweet-sour drink that is very easy to develop a taste for. It is best stored in a mud vessel, where a piece of white pumpkin or edible lime is added at the stage when fermentation is to be stopped.

Toddy shops are famous of course, for their food. But it is toddy that is the real hero of these cozy, yet high-energy joints. Like other traditional brews in the country, toddy plays a large role in communal rituals and household activities in the south. It is offered to the gods, and there are countless folklore and stories of its benefits – fresh toddy is often given to babies as their first food after mothers’ milk.

 Mandirithop Toddy Shop, Kerala. Photo credit Saina Jayapal.

Mandirithop Toddy Shop, Kerala. Photo credit Saina Jayapal.

A toddy high is relaxed and comfortable, with no rough edges the next morning. But perhaps the best part of these traditional brews is that they are actually good for you - palm wine contains plenty of vitamin B1, combats hypertension, fights free radicals (cheers to preventing cancer, hic!), and midwives from Ghana to Kerala recommend a glass or two for mothers with lactation troubles.

Palm wine doesn’t have to be made out of coconut, and isn’t relegated to just the South either. It is present in Bihar and Jharkhand (where it is known as Tadi) and the wine can be made from an incision in the flower bud of most species of palm – in Andhra Pradesh, they make a killer ‘arrack’ out of the date palm.

But things are getting tougher for toddy shops these days. No one wants to climb trees anymore; because of the risks involved, toddy tappers prefer to work in construction. The government isn’t making it any easier either. Direct selling of toddy by tree owners or toddy tappers is now illegal in Kerala. 

BREWING ALCOHOL FROM RICE

 Chaang is produced through the fermentation of rice, yeast and water.

Chaang is produced through the fermentation of rice, yeast and water.

India’s other great alcoholic beverage is made from rice.  Though known by different names in different parts of the country (mostly across the North and North-East), it is most commonly known as Chaang.

Chaang is produced by the microbial fermentation of steamed rice with yeast and water. Yeast  is mixed into cooked rice and stored in a cool, dark place for about a week. Then the rice is mixed with water and a milky, fermented liquid is strained through. My watchman would often leave huge hunks of fermented rice in his drink  (thoda khao, thoda peeo, he would say). To each his own, I say.

It isn’t too bad at this stage but if you rest this liquid overnight (or longer), a cloudy residue settles to leave a delicious, subtle and sweet, clear liquid. Similar to Korean soju that can then be infuse with fruit and herbs (dried apricots, black pepper, strawberry and ginger are favourites) to make a truly illustrious drink.

When compared to traditional wine (ie, made from grape or other fruit), wine made from rice contains more alcohol. Its alcohol content is often in the range of 18% to 25%, but that doesn’t take away from its position as another healthy drink. A highly nutritious beverage with essential amino acids, sugars and organic acids, rice wine contains several vitamins and minerals as well. Since Chaang is a fermented product, it’s not surprising that the drink also contains many strains of lactic acid bacteria, which are probiotic.

 Toddy needs no yeast; the sweetness of the sap and the warm climate cause the nectar to spontaneous ferment. Photo credit Saina Jayapal.

Toddy needs no yeast; the sweetness of the sap and the warm climate cause the nectar to spontaneous ferment. Photo credit Saina Jayapal.

These are the most common of our brews, but are by no means the only ones. There is tharra made from sugarcane – heavy and strong; Mahua from the flowers of the tree – sweet and delicious; Feni – bold-flavoured and blindingly potent; Ghanti from Kinnaur made with apples and apricots, the smoothest of drinks; or the Assamese Judima, that tastes like honey.

In smaller towns it is easier to access fresh local alcohol, but far more difficult in cities. Which is disappointing because the culture and art of our traditional alcohol is dying out when instead, it needs to be nourished and preserved. Recently in New Delhi, I visited a cozy restaurant, Nimtho, that served the most delicious Thungba – a kodo millet beer from Nagaland. Served in a tall bamboo glass with a thick bamboo straw, and warm water was poured into the fermented millet sprouts inside the glass. I was asked to wait a few minutes and stir before drinking. I enjoyed the ritual of the drink, the spicy pork that paired with it beautifully, and the pleasant high that followed. Its sour punch is strong but it is like a meaty drink with a clean aftertaste, a lot like beer.

It made me incredibly happy to find a traditional brew at a restaurant in the city; perhaps these drinks will eventually find their way into cocktails as well. In Goa, Feni sits proudly on every bar menu in the state. Despite its fruity funkiness, tourists and locals flock to it, forcing bartenders to up their game. Strong, fresh flavours like apple, ginger and grape pair well with it, but there is still much to be done; the possibilities are endless.

Now is the time to put our wallets behind the food and beverage traditions of our country, and champion its culinary repertoire in drink as well. Why stop at food being local? It is time to look into our glasses too. Only good things can come from eating and drinking what grows around us. Drinking Russian vodka in the sultry summer by the coast? Ask for a toddy cocktail with coconut milk, instead. And what do we have to lose? A few happy hours drinking to good health and saving tradition.

Simrit Malhi lives on her permaculture farm in Kodaikanal, runs a fair-trade farmer co-op and believes we can eat our way to a healthier planet. Follow her here

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