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Preserving Our Traditional Tipples

Tuesday, January 9, 2018, 16:06 Hrs  [IST]

The Government’s recently expressed interest in Indian foods is commendable. But it falls short: it leaves the other half uncovered.

Food and drink are as closely linked as men and women. Why, then, is there no official effort being made to discover and publicise our traditional Indian tipples? Is it because control freaks generally try to conceal their prejudices under the cloak of big brotherliness and our ancient cultural heritage! “Drinking,” we are told by self-appointed guardians of tradition, “is unnatural. No animal drinks alcohol.”

Really?! In the vast wildernesses of South Africa, where great herds of elephants roam, the huge Marula tree thrives. Its sweet, squashy, pulpy fruit ripen, fall to the ground, and begin to ferment in the heat of the sun. This is when elephants gather around and feast on this bonanza. Many of them get rollicking drunk on the naturally fermented juice of the Marula fruit. In fact the South Africans make a superb Marula Cream based on the pachyderm’s preferred tipple!

“So those are South African animals” say our professional political prudes. “Our Indian wildlife are all teetotallers as all good Indians should be.” Where ignorance is bliss, it’s folly to be a travel writer! We have been travelling all across our wonderful land for more than 40 years. The proud Silk Cotton tree blooms when the sun begins to warm our plains. Its flaming, fleshy, tulip-like flowers hold sweet nectar to tempt visiting birds to sip and fertilise them. The sugary nectar ferments in the sun converting every simal tree into a popular avian bar. Soon the trees are alive with roistering, rambunctious, feathered topers having the time of their lives. So, should we cut down every Silk Cotton tree to preserve the morality of birds? Should we cover the superb sculptures of Konarak and Khajurajo to curtail our demographic dividend, among other things?

The fermentation of sugar into alcohol is as natural a process as the curdling of milk, the creation of yoghurt and the rising of dough under the action of yeast. Humans, from as far back as anthropologists can determine, have brewed and distilled alcohol from grains, fruit and berries, flowers and tubers. In the myriad civilisations of the world, local hooch has been refined, packaged
and marketed, earning rich profits for their nations. Home-made booze became expensive branded beers, spirits, wines and liqueurs. Scotch was, and still is, as varied as the clans after whom they are still named, or the deep valley-glens in which their distilleries were hidden from the prying eyes of tax collectors. Rum was a plantation slave’s, and a swashbuckling sailor’s drink. The Americans’ bourbon and rye were created in the legendary illicit moonshine stills of the backwoods.

Sadly, though we have our own heritage drinks, only Goa has developed and marketed its indigenous booze. But then, Goans have a sort of Devil-may-care effervescence that refuses to be shackled. Their Feni, made from both coconut and cashew, can be enjoyed far from the boundaries of Goa. There are, however, thousands of original, heritage, drinks that are still obscure, and likely to be lost if not developed as unique brands. We have drunk delectable native beers in Sikkim, heady mowha and two types of ‘palm wine’ in a haat in Chattisgarh. The old Syrian Christian families of Kerala have told us that many still have secret recipes of homemade drinks that sustained their hard-working ancestors for way past the Biblical “four score years and ten” in the beautiful valley of Kalpa in Himachal we sipped an apple-apricot-saffron liqueur that was as superb as any international one. Many of our friends from the former Princely families of our land, have assured us that most of them have carefully preserved, secret, recipes of drinks that their guests rave about.

This is our rich cornucopia of heritage drinks, almost as varied as our food. No one can object to our vintners importing foreign vines to enhance our wine list. But why are we neglecting our own heritage tipples?

They are the original Make in India products that will relieve farmers’ distress, increase our hold in a market which China does not dominate, and enhance our image as a sophisticated nation.

The views expressed within this column are the opinion of the author, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication.

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