Alcohol is a part of the cultural identity of a nation. Not so much the type or potency as the actual process of how it’s consumed and how much it influences society. Alcohol brings society together; yes, it also breaks families and causes a whole big mess, but when it’s done right, it’s almost the glue that holds us together. Alcohol or drinking culture is not really the first, or second, third or fourth thing that comes to mind when I say Nepal. Tourism in Nepal is more about gompas, temples and Everest Base Camp, eh?
Well, the Nepalese are generally a quiet, demure people; and so is their drinking culture. but that does not, by any means, refer to a lack of indigenous potent brews. That said, getting drunk in front of your parents or other elders is unacceptable social behavior. Nepal is a country still coming to terms with the drinking habits of the current generation.
When Frank Zappa famously said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” And Nepal has four – Everest, Nepal Ice, Gorkha and Kathmandu. That’s too few to suggest the best one, you can try all of them and decide for yourself. They are quite easily available when you’re eating out in Nepal.
So a Chinese princess got married to a certain king around the seventh century A.D. and brought a brew with her to Tibet as part of her dowry, and so it was taken as a means to share hospitality. And they called it cchyang, which is now the the generic term for any beer made from rice or other grains, typically fermented in barrels while cloudy unfiltered Chhyang is called jaarnd.
Also called Thon in Newari, it’s a milky, refreshingly sweet alcoholic drink made by fermentation of rice. Sherpas need chhyang in every phase of their life, even in sacramental rites and rituals. And the not so popular Sherpa saying goes, “if there is chhyang, everything is there and without it there is nothing”.
It is a clear liquid usually made from kodo millet (kodo) or rice; different grains produce different flavors. It can even be made from fruit like mulberries. It bears a heady resemblance to Sake, in terms of flavor and tequila, in terms of potency. It’s a strong drink, served in small, unbaked clay cups called Salinchha or tiny brass containers called Kholchhaa. They hold a little less than a regular shot glass.
The Newars call it Aeyla and also use it as a remedy for indigestion, cough and cold. A little aeylaa can be rubbed on sore knees or the back and chest to relieve pain. Pure Aeylaa will burn completely with a bluish flame.
This “brew it yourself” concoction is probably the most pleasant Nepali alcohol. A jug of fermented millet and a flask of hot water and Viola! However, you cannot sip from your tongba glass; you have to use a straw (as much as you might hate it, that’s just how it’s done). The straw is traditionally made of a bamboo pipe with a slit at the bottom end to let in the brew, but not the millet. You might also find plastic and aluminium straws. You can refill with hot water about four or five times. The third round is usually the strongest as the grain is completely soaked.
Tongba vessels are traditionally made of wood, sometime bamboo. Nowadays they are mass produced using plastic and aluminium. They are available for sale. The older generation can be seen sipping their tongba from dawn until dusk. Tongba is a way of life!
You may not find any of these on the popular Nepal tourism brochures, but this is how the locals do it. Definitely worth a sip!
Chhe, Chee !
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