For the ‘children’ of our extended, typically Newar family, we used to look forward to pujas (prayers) in Dashain and Tihar with eager anticipation. Our whole family would squeeze together in our tiny puja room and sit on straw mats shamelessly laughing and joking while the head of our family, my Thulo Ba, performed all the religious rites in front of the statues of various deities, occasionally glaring at us if we became too unruly. To be honest, it wasn’t the devout inclination in us that had us all excited about sitting for the pujas. It was the prospect of meeting our cousins who’d moved away, and the jug of jaandh (milky-white, light rice beer) that Thulo Ba would inevitably take out. We not only loved the distinct sweet and slightly sour taste of this local alcoholic brew, but also the fact that we were allowed to drink it without any qualms. As we were given the prasad, the food blessed by the gods, we were allowed to sip jaandh with each bite of fried egg, woh (fried ground lentil patties) and meat. We kept lifting our kholas (small copper vessels meant for drinking water or alcohol from) for refills!
Jaandh, which goes by different names, is drunk by many Nepali communities. Among the Newars, who call the drink ‘thon’, this beverage is served in and drunk from special bowls called ‘kholas’ (see photo above)
Jaandh, Thon, Chhyang, Tongba – the drink has various names – is used by people of various cultural backgrounds. Jaandh is an essential part of Nepali culture as the drink is indispensable for pujas and one of the irreplaceable ingredients of sagun – food items given for good luck. Although imported drinks and spirits may have taken over Nepal’s liquor market to a considerable extent, people still enjoy such locally brewed drinks at home or bhattis (small eateries) in the city. Even though drinking too much of it is not good, jaandh, if taken in small amounts, can autually be beneficial for health. Peasants and people engaged in heavy manual labor usually drink ‘weak’ jaandh throughout the day for energy to carry out their arduous tasks.
Since jaandh is so important for religious purposes and as a refreshment for guests, families in Kathmandu are known to make jaandh at home in small amounts whenever needed. Traditionally, it is the job of the female member(s) of the family. Jaandh is typically prepared from a number of food grains (millet, barley and rice among others) and different cultures use different kinds and different methods to brew it.
In Newari households, the rice is soaked in water for half an hour and then steamed. Before it is completely cooked, the rice is taken out and washed with cold water and then steamed again. Once cooked, the rice is spread out on a sheet of plastic for some of the moisture to dry. According to Sanu Maiya, who lives in Itache, Bhaktapur and farms for a living, this is then mixed with a fermentation agent called manaapu or murcha, which is sold in certain shops in the form of ‘bricks’, and should be powdered and then kept in an earthen vessel. The vessel is covered well to make it airtight and warm, and the mixture is stirred once or twice a day. If the temperature is warm enough, the fermentation process takes as few as three days, the strong alcoholic smell already emanating from the vessel. Once the rice ferments, it is called ponka in Newari, and the resultant liquid is the main concentrate of Jaandh known as munti. Water is added to this concentrate according to how strong the jaandh is meant to be and is decanted before being served. Once all the munti is used up and only the fermented rice is left, the remnants can either be fed to the animals, cooked as tarkari or re-fermented with a mixture of chiura (beaten rice) and shakkar (brown sugar) and then distilled to make raksi, a strong local drink.
In the far eastern region (especially in the hills) of Nepal, it is the Limbu community that usually drinks Tongba. Here, jaandh is made from fermented whole grain millet and served in a bamboo vessel also called Tongba to which hot water is added. The hot beverage is then sucked through a thin bamboo pipe, and once the water in the tongba finishes, more hot water is added and the drinking process continues until the millets become ‘flat’ just like beer. Chhyang is yet another popular form of Jaandh usually brewed from rice or barley or millet. Whatever name you’d like to call it by, Jaandh is a drink that is not going to lose its popularity in Nepal anytime soon.