Aila...The Mystical Taste of Nepal

Features Issue 20 Aug, 2010
Text by Bijay Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

The Newari feast, the bhoye, is considered a unique tradition not only by foreigners, but even among the Nepalese. With numerous courses of meals and the famous aila, Newari feasts are always an enjoyable occasion. Besides being a main part of the feast, aila also plays a religious role. The older Newari generations say that aila is considered to be one of the purest things, and for that reason it is offered to most of the Newari gods and goddesses. In almost all the jatras (religious festivals) of the Newars (such as Indra Jatra, the biggest festival of the Newars of Kathmandu, or the Kumari Jatra) it is only after the chosen one is given aila that the divinity takes over his body and is able to carry the heavy masks and perform the rituals.  Thus aila is centrally important to rituals.

The manufacturing of aila carries a special importance for the women of a household, and they pride themselves in their liquor. They put the most effort and time into making aila for special celebrations, so the finest of these liquors are homemade. Aila is a strong drink: a thrilling and smooth grain alcohol. Different grains produce different flavors: rice aila is rich and smooth, kodo or millet is stronger and more fiery.

Mrs. Shrestha, a resident of Dhulikhel, a panoramic, traditional Newari village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, shared her secret recipe for one of the finest ailas I have tasted. Every ingredient is carefully selected. These collected items are then mixed with marcha (an edible organic compound used for fermentation). It takes around four to five days for the mixture to ferment. The fermented mixture is locally known as the ‘jad’, and even this can be consumed as a raw and strong liquor. But for the mixture to be called ‘aila’, the journey is still very long and arduous. Aila preparation requires a set of clay and brass vessels specially designed for this purpose alone. ‘Phosi’, ‘pottasi’, ‘dowacha’, ‘jaisa’ ,and the ‘aila bata’ are the names of these vessels.  For the elaborate process of distilling, Mrs. Shrestha pours the fermented jad into the phosi, which is then put over a wood fire stove. Even the firewood and the flame play important roles in the preparation, and determining the taste and quality of the aila. On top of the phosi, a potasi, which has numerous holes in its base, is placed. It is through these holes that the vapor passes and is cooled by the cold water present in the aila bata. The aila bata, a vessel made out of brass, is placed atop the potasi and cools the vapor, changing it into liquid droplets. These liquid droplets are collected in the dowacha (vessel that holds the aila), which is placed inside the potasi. Mrs. Shrestha recommends that the same process be done with the fermented mixture at least four times to get the best quality aila. The process is very long and demands undivided attention.  For quality production, different people watch over different aspects such as the flame, the water temperature and the vessels. The longer one preserves aila, the stronger it becomes.  The taste is determined by the amount of heat given to the phosi (burning vessel) and the cold water in the aila bata. It is said that just two to three shots of strong aila is enough to knock one out of one’s senses!

There is a special way of pouring aila at feasts and celebrations: it is poured from the graceful spouted anti (traditional Newari jug) into tiny clay cups called sallie, an art which tests the grace and skill of the pourer.

To test a good aila, one pours a small amount into a cup and lights it with a flame.  A fine colored flame (usually a deep blue), reflects the quality of the drink.  A host usually ignites a small amount of aila to exhibit the purity and strength of his/her drink.

This rich liquor of Nepal, if properly processed and publicized, could easily come to symbolize Nepal in the global menu of liquors in the same way that tequila represents Mexico; vodka, Russia; or sake, Japan. Though aila is still the favorite of the Newari feasts, other liquors are of course served throughout Nepal.  Local restaurants and food outlets serve drinks made popular in other countries as well as other traditional Nepalese drinks like thon (Newari) or chhyang (Tibetan) - the milky white beer/liquor made from fermented rice, and tongba – a popular liquor in the hills, produced by pouring hot water into a special container of fermented millet , and drinking it through a bamboo straw.

Since production and sale of aila is usually done outside the legal system (traditional methods of brewing are harder to regulate and tax than distilleries and bottling plants), it is usually done  clandestinely.   Fortunately, it is still possible to brew small quantities to serve in eating and drinking establishments.  In most of the outlets in the city, aila is served as an item in multi  course meal and not listed in the bar menu (although it may be available when customers make a request).

Dwarika’s, a unique hotel where every c orner reveals the rich Nepali culture and tradition, has been promoting aila in its Nepali Restaurant ‘Krishnarpan’. Sangita Shrestha Einhaus, Managing Director of Dwarika’s Hotel, shared her first experience in serving aila to her guests back in the 1970’s. Aila  was served to her clients from Kathmandu Travels (one of the sister concerns of Dwarika’s). The response from these clients encouraged her to introduce this liquor at ‘Krishnarpan’. She said, “Revival and conservation is the theme of Dwarika’s. Along with its rich architecture and culture, Nepali cuisine should be revived and exhibited to the whole world.” Krishnarpan has been doing that since it started. Here aila is served as a part of the set Newari meal, a symbol of Newari culture and a mystical taste of Nepal.  The liquor is not sold in the hotel, although the demand for it is very high. According to Mrs. Shrestha Einhaus, introducing aila in Krishnarpan is an effort to preserve and revive the rich Nepali culture not only for foreigners to enjoy, but also for Nepalese to get to know their roots. Some of the famous figures that have tasted aila at the ‘Krishnarpan’ are His Royal Highness Crown Prince Felipe of Spain, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, and Former German President Mr. Roma Rerzog.

Sagun Pradhan, Food and Beverage Consultant of Dwarika’s Hotel, shared the view of his friend who owns a small vineyard in Europe, honored with the best wine award in America. “It was in one of the gatherings where all these wine tasters go and taste the quality of wine, and he brought out a bottle of aila which I had sent him.  Every expert loved the taste of aila”, shared Sagun. The Nepalese tourism industry has been showcasing Nepal as a country with the highest peaks, diverse flora and fauna, and rich culture and traditions.  It can also be called the country of aila, the mystical taste of the Himalayan kingdom.