A communal joy

Food Issue 138 Jun, 2013
Text and Photo By Nischal Oli

It’s the morning of Holi; a relentless calm pervades Kathmandu’s streets exacerbated by the sinister absence of people. That is till the sun rises past the 3 story houses and warms the street. Soon after, in wanton rejection of its earlier state the streets will burst with people determined to make proper use of the heat and the celebration of Spring. While children and adults alike jump around the narrow streets around Naag Bahal, a similar excitement brews in a house close by. Each new person entering Prakash Dhakhwa’s house is welcomed with two fingers across the cheeks, once with vermillion red and again with a saintly yellow. The smaller inner-courtyard of his house is blocked off with containers full of water, not for Holi, but to distill aaila – a strong rice-based home brewed liquor.

Prakash and Jitendra Shrestha have been negotiating the inclusion of outsiders to the Newari community for some time. Both have renovated their houses and turned them into contemporary home-stays for people wishing to experience their culture and the lifestyles of the Newars. More importantly they have remolded their thoughts to be less dogmatic. Likewise, a recent venture for the two has been exposing the clandestine art of making Nepali alcohol through a course on making aaila.

“In my opinion, I would say making raksi (Nepali for aaila) has been confined to a behind-the-doors atmosphere and not much has been altered for at least 400 years,” explains Jitendra. “We need to create exchanges of this sort to begin integrating these processes in the vocabulary of our culture,” reiterates Prakash, who welcomed a group of Japanese expatriates to his home for the first course.

Informal and spontaneous, the workshop began back in March with procuring the ingredients: beaten rice, millet and fermenting agents. A swift walk from the Bahal to a dark room inside a street-side house – this hole in the wall was the only shopping stop. “These ingredients aren’t sold in regular shops,” says Prakash, as he smells, evaluates each ingredient; “because of accepted perceptions and local attitudes; much of the idea of making raksi has been marginalized.”

After a week’s break, the second session is dedicated to preparing the ingredients: the millet is steamed in a clay pot, and the beaten rice is soaked. Eventually the two are brought together in a mixture with the fermenting agent. “It’s a natural process, that is in effect controlled by the weather of Kathmandu,” says Jitendra, alluding the temperate weather of the Valley that regulates fermentation, keeping alcoholic volume in a potable range of 25-35% per volume. For three weeks, the mixture sits still in the corner, getting potent by the day.

Which brings the group back to Prakash’s house on Holi. His mother sits by the furnace feeding wood to the fire, as the mixture is heated in consecutive sessions. “Raksi is usually prepared by the women of the family, for special occasions and festivities,” says Prakash, as the group watches the women of the household oversee all aspects of the distillation. Besides his mother, Prakash’s aunt helps with maintaining the cold surface of the pot to help with condensing the evaporating alcohol, while his sister-in-law acts as the runner in between tasks. Using only alloy-cast pots and bare hands as natural thermometers, the women distill more than a gallon of aaila from the fermented mixture.

As the aroma settles in profusion around the house, shots of the alcohol are passed around amongst the jovial group of the workshop. The course now over leads to assurances of the similarity between the Japanese sake, the Korean soju and aaila. For the hosts and foreigners present, it brings some amendments to past practices of keeping cultural practices hidden, while bolstering an authentic connection with Kathmandu and its guests, through the living heritage of its Newar community.