Rice wine that connects the Asian countries

It is not always you meet great group of people when you go for conferences. Most times you just end up wishing for conferences to get over so that you can go back home. Other times you find amazing company that you have a blast irrespective of how the conference goes.

I’m not sure if I can group my recent conference in Italy under the latter, but I did meet some people, journalists from other Asian countries such as China, Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia. There was hardly any time to bond but with the time we got, sometimes over dinner and break times, we discussed topics ranging from technology reporting and press freedom to food and culture. It was enlightening indeed for it revealed how different and yet how similar journalism works in different States.

I also realised that how similar Asian cultures are in a way (not surprisingly) and could yet be so diverse, rich and fascinating. It made me aware that we were all connected by our love for rice, curries, spices and tea, which wasn’t surprising considering most of our Asian countries were colonised precisely for these commodities and for cheap labour.

But there is another link too, indigenous liquor made out of rice that are more common in other Asian countries but lesser known in India. However the Asian markets are now dominated by foreign liquor, whichever you might favour be it Scottish Whisky or Belgian beer.

Rice wine (it is not anywhere like the French and Italian ones you drink) is an alcoholic beverage consumed in rice loving South, East and Southeast Asian countries. It is made from fermentation of rice starch that is converted to sugars. It typically has an alcohol content of 18-25 per cent and sometimes more. Apparently, some of the wines produced by tribals have alcoholic content of 40 per cent. Though it is not a common practice in India, in other Asian countries it is the traditional liquor that is used for formal dinners and in religious and ceremonial context.

In Japan, exchanging of sake between two parties means that they are bound together either in business or family. Kuchikami sake made by shrine maidens are revered and said to be drunk by gods. 

However apart from sake culture in Japan I was not much aware that it could be prevalent in other countries too, until I met journalists from Asian countries. 

The Chinese journalist, lets call her Ginger, spoke about how exorbitant the prices of Chinese rice wine are thanks to worsening trade policy of the country. This is in turn resulting in many adulterated products dotting the market. In Malayasia it is mostly the tribes that brew the wine and is available for cheap prices in Borneo. Korea like Japan have a prominent rice wine/beer culture, said the Korean journalist. 

From Google I found out that there are more than one variety of rice liquor in these countries. China has Choujiu and Shaoxing. Korea has many varieties of rice such as Cheongju and Dansul. In Malaysia the home-brewed rice wine in Borneo is available for cheap at tribal homes there. The Malaysian tech reporter recommended it if one needs to get high faster, for the alcohol content in them is quite high at 40 per cent.

A quick googling helped me take stock of alcoholic beverages made from rice in India. There are at least 12 varieties of alcoholic beverage mostly made in North Eastern region. This includes Apo from Arunachal Pradesh, Chuak from Tripura, Laopani from Assam and Sekmai in Manipur. There are more of course such as Handia popular by Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh or Hariya, a rice beer from North East. There are also some beverages made from millets, flowers and fruits.

These traditional beverages are brewed and drunk by mostly tribes or indigenous people in the region. But as I read Indian food history books by authors like KT Achaya, you understand that indigenous alcohol was much more a common practice than it is now. There were at least 200 varieties of alcoholic beverages brewed and consumed by wider sections of the society. 

Rice wine from North East. Source: http://www.fuccha.in
Hadia, wine made from fermented rice drunk in Central India. Source: http://www.fireflydaily.com

The book ‘Companion to Indian Food’ by KT Achaya mentioned alcoholic drinks that are mentioned in Sanskrit literature. Sura was a strong liquor and one of the earliest mentioned alcohol made from barley or rice flour by fermentation. Parisruta was a drink made from fermented flowers, which added aromatic grasses. Varuni was a distilled liquor made from mahua flowers. There were few that were imported from then Afghanistan such as Kapisayani and Harahuraka.

This was a time when colonisation was yet to reach Asia. But now most of them have all but disappeared. The market is now filled with beers, wine, whisky and vodka, in part due to colonisation and in part due to faster adoption of Western culture and open market economy that India is becoming.

For instance, when East India company began to make India home they began importing wines, beers and other spirits to entertain guests and for themselves. They arrived in barrels whenever merchant ships from Britain reached India, which took anywhere between 3-6 months. This was not sustainable for the beers were spoiled by the time they reached Indian ports. So they began brewing alcohol in the Indian territory. This led to the invention of India pale ale in about 1787 by Bow Brewery.  

The very first beer brewery was set up in Kasauli, where the Lion brand of beer is still produced. By 1882, there were 12 breweries in India in all producing close to 48 lakh gallons of beer. Of course more than half of which was purchased by British and the rest were for local consumption.

I’m not sure if this could termed as turning point in the Indian drinking culture. The change probably began when the Dutch, Portuguese and finally the British began to colonise India and started influencing our culture. It maybe too much of a stretch to say that without the British or the Dutch, India would probably had its own rice wine industry. We would have got there anyway. Japan was never colonised but it has a strong drinking culture, dominated by western drinks.  Notion that drinking was wrong had already spread even without the advent of the Europeans

If not for them, maybe we would be have been having a glass of Indian sake along with a Absolute Vodka. But the thing is, we will never know!

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