A few weeks ago I promised to devote a future column to Nepali alcohol ('Speaking in tongues', #397). Here it is.
Tongba and raksi are mainstays of the winter. Many a cold night my body has gone to sleep wrapped in a warm glow thanks to these natural heaters, and I am with that section of the Nepali population which believes that raksi is good for an upset stomach, though I don't know if the belief has any basis in medical fact.
But the best taste and widest variety are found in jad, a beer which can be brewed from seemingly almost any grain. The most popular varieties include:
1. Kodo ko jad, this is the king of jads. Most popular in eastern Nepal, the millet brew is sharp and refreshing, especially if it has been fermented long enough to be sour rather than sweet, and is of a thin consistency.
2. Chamal ko jad, the favourite in Kathmandu and the Valley rice jad is usually sweeter and often thicker than millet. I like this variety but find it is less tasty than millet and can be deceptively and dangerous strong, and should be treated with care on social occasion.
3. Makai ko jad-I have only been served maize brew a couple of times in the central hills. To be honest it was not my favourite. The texture was gritty and taste inferior to other varieties. Maybe I just got a bad batch.
4. Gahun ko jad-served in higher-up villages, wheat jad is no-nonsense and thick, filling the stomach almost like eating a meal. This is the most giggly of jads, as the power is slowly released from the full stomach.
5. Kodo ra chamal ko mix-apparently the best proportions are 80-90 percent millet and 10-20 percent rice. If the mix and fermentation time are right, this can be even better than pure millet.
Jad can also be made from various other grains and roots, though this connoisseur hasn't had the pleasure of trying them out. But whereas Khaire Bhai has enjoyed all the drinks and is grateful for the hospitality and brewing skill of so many hosts, he is aware that the spectre of alcoholism, which increasingly haunts the UK public consciousness, also hangs over Nepal.
Although here it tends to be older rather than younger people who consume more alcohol and 'binge drink', as the British media would have it, this still represents a danger and a problem. The realisation only dawned on me slowly that people who start drinking tongba first thing in the morning every day are alcoholics. Having drunk parents or grandparents strikes me as even more dangerous to society as a whole than having drunk children, especially in a country where age is accorded sometimes unquestioning obedience and deference.
Of course by no means everyone is an alcoholic. Indeed alcohol is despised by another section of the population, an attitude which seems almost as unhealthy. Nepali society has a kind of schizophrenia about alcohol. Some young people in Nepal are either put under pressure to drink by older relatives, and some forbidden it on pain of disinheritance by teetotal parents. Many drink secretly whereas others, seeing the effect of alcoholism on some of their elders, have forsworn it themselves.
In a country where alcohol is very widely available and traditionally consumed, puritanical vilification of drinking is not a solution to alcoholism, as it just hardens resistance to what some people see as an attempt to suppress their culture.
Maybe it would be more healthy for everyone to accept that using alcohol in moderation is enjoyable, and try to consider the reasons, individual and social, why certain people become addicted to it. Helping alcoholics with their addiction will most likely do more good than condemning them.