BY TAPO VIJAY KAR
The land of Mystic and ancient culture has a way towards the ecstasy of intoxication. Perhaps more than the purpose the mysticism is in its acquired knowledge of Mother Nature and the little nuances which is part of deriving the effect. India for long walks shoulder to shoulder in its march of deriving mystic brews out of the available ingredients found in its vast lap. Whats even more interesting is the fact that the brews got influenced not only by the diversity of land, climate, soil, temperature, and culture but significantly got smitten by the invasions and formation of interlocks of cultures. Mystic.
One must have a flavor of the different origination of these brews and alcoholic beverages and apart from admiring the palatable taste of it, the appreciation should extend for the knowledge of science that revolves around the same and is passed on to hundreds of generations maintaining the sanctity of the brew and hence its purity. The basic science of converting sugar and starch to alcohol with the help of micro-organism was invented long back. In Indian subcontinent, the mention of such beverages dates back to as old as 3000 yrs. The Rigveda (1500 BCE) mentions soma and sura, which are alcoholic beverages. With the time changing the brews, the beverages have only acquired and improvised on the methods to make it more potent and smooth, negating the congeners with each shades of passing time. We may blame it to on the theories of western economic supremacy and marginalization of indigenous spirits over western ones or perhaps do any detailed study of brand recognition and do a deep dive analysis of the same, but the fact remains that these spirits are as good as any of its sisters and cousins across the globe.
I have travelled through and got the privilege to taste some of the most exotic and potent beverages of all time served with its unique accompaniments by the most hospitable hosts met in my life so far. I am glad to open the sneak peek show into the world of Indian alcoholic beverages. This time, its 4 such elixir.
Here I open the chart –
- Mahua – Produced, brewed and cherished mostly by the tribes and aboriginals of the central Indian belt, this beverage is truly a tale to be told. Its association is not only with the purpose of intoxication but has sacred and spiritual belief, rooted in its very existence and hence is part of many of the ceremonies among the people. Found in the Indian state of Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujrat, part of Karnataka and Rajasthan. The beauty of this beverage is that it is a product of a flower known as Madhuca longifolia. The flower got high sugar content (about 70%) apart from rich source of many minerals. They are scented flowers. The beverage is a fermented and distilled product of these flowers. The indigenous pot stills are collectables on itself. Its colourless with a slight white tinge and is fragrant, and it goes down to the belly with a fiery trail down the throat. The potency ranges from 10% to 75% depending on how it is made and sold. Traditionally it will be served in a bowl stitched from leaves. Not to forget the medicinal and healing power of the flower itself and hence its use in medicines soaps and oils. The local tribe, Gonds believe that this flower has aphrodisiac properties and hence in lot of their pre-nuptial and nuptial ceremonies, Mahua serves as integral part and is cherished by both men and women at large. To that one must say that Mahua is a buddy in all occasions of their life; birth, death, weddings, funerals, matting etc. These days urbans can get it bottled with a price. DJ Mahua is one such brand. My recommendation is to have it on the rock with a lime wedge, muddled with little sugar.
- Handia – A rice beer by its formation is a tribal drink consumed mostly in the eastern and central Indian states, namely Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The tribes specially, Oraon, Munda, Santhal, Korba and few others, relish the drink which is part of their lifestyle. The uniqueness of the drink is the fact is the use of Ranu tablets in the making of the drink. Handia is perhaps the reminiscent of the container used to prepare it which is an earthenware pot colloquially called as “Handi”. Ranu is prepared with at least 20 different herbs, barks, roots and rice powder and can be called the soul of the drink. It starts the fermentation and contributes making the body of the Handia. The fermentation takes about 2-3 days. Personally a cold glass of Handia with some spiced pickles on the side to taste is what I prefer. As they say, the way of tribes.
- Apo – relished in the North Eastern part of India, this drink is a version of rice beer. Much to the taste and feel of the product, what I liked most is the way it is served. Yes it is served inside containers made out of bamboo shoots. Temperature control remains an important factor in its preparation as it is mostly made as house beverages among the tribes in their own way devised to control the temperature. Mostly the container is covered with flaps made out of bamboo shoots. With a nicely cooked Lukter (Cooked Dry meat ) and Pika Pila (Pickle made by bamboo shoots and pork fat), a glass of Apo goes extremely well.
- Chhang – A barley product in principle, has its roots perhaps in Tibetan culture from its very inception. Typically a barley beer is famous among the shepherds of Himalayas. The potency is at a lower level compared to its cousins across the world, at 5-6 %. But likewise its cousins, is a very integral part of culture and day to day life of people. Almost on all occasions of life Chhang is relished. One witnesses still a lot of the traditional potteries and devices used in the making of the beverages such as bho (Mug made of wood), rza-ma (earthern pot), Zem (wooden cask). The serving is performed traditionally and has lot of esthetic value attached. Still it is served in chapskan (brass container for serving)
The journey to the traditional beverages is not only intoxicating by the value of alcohol but by the amount of culture and history it has soaked inside it for ages and centuries. They stand tall with their family which is spread across the human civilization. These beverages are the finest hand crafted beverages, the recipe of which is passed on from generations to generations manifesting the wisdom of our species.