Even Yetis wander in and around the high Himalayan houses drooling for the warmth of the sweet heady Tongba. At least, that’s what the legends say. So, people flocking to restaurants and bhattis (local bars) to sip on this warm winter brew is not at all an unusual sight.
Tongba, which is a millet-based alcoholic beverage, is a traditional drink indigenous to the Kiranti nations east Nepal. It’s also a favorite drink of people from other cultures inhabiting the mountainous regions of Tibet, Bhutan and along with the neighboring Darjeeling District and the State of Sikkim in India.
For the Limbu people, though, Tongba is much more than a simple homebrewed drink.
“In Limbu culture, Tongba symbolizes izzat (respect),” says Raj Kumar Digpal, senior journalist and indigenous culture expert. “If you go to a Limbu house and they offer you Tongba, it means they regard you with the highest respect.”
Digpal says that kodo or millet is taken as the most important crop in the Limbu community since the early civilizations based on agriculture. “In our language, millet is called Mangtak which translates to God’s food. As Tongba is a product made of excess millet grains, it also carries great cultural and religious values for us.”
Arjun Limbu, Central President of Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, adds that Tongba has been an essential element in every Kiranti and Limbu ritual and ceremony performed from birth to death. Hence, previously, almost all the Kiranti households homebrewed their own Tongba.
“As it was prepared in our own kitchens, we grew up with Tongba and Jaand always in our household. We had to offer it to our Gods, our ancestors, our guests and it was a must for any celebration,” Limbu says.
For the preparation, they first separate the husk of the dried millet and cook the whole grains. Once it is cooled, they add Marcha and leave the mixture in a warm place for two-three days.
Later, the rich brown mass is transferred to big bamboo containers and left for 7-15 days or even a month till the fermented mass is ready and oozing jaand or millet beer, also known elsewhere as ”chhyang” or “chi” among Tibetans, Sherpas, Lepchas and Rais who are equally the other ethnic imbibers of the potent juice.
Traditionally drunk out of the bamboo container, also called Tongba or “dhungro,” the drink is prepared and consumed in a unique way. The brown fermented whole grain millet is brought out in a jar and boiled water is poured till the jar is full to the brim. It is then left undisturbed for five minutes.
Then you sip the whitish warm juice using a bamboo reed pipa or “pipsing” or straw which is flattened and perforated at one end to filter the millet grains. As you continue to add water, the strength of the alcohol decreases. But usually, the taste is not exhausted until three to four fills of piping hot water.
Taplejung, Dharan, Itahari and Dhankuta are considered as some of the top Tongba destinations in Nepal. Hile Bazaar in Dhankuta even boasts of a big Tongba jar set as an icon welcoming you at the entrance to the bazaar.
Besides, Tongba in the Sherpa households around Khumbu region and higher Himalaya has also been a heartwarming drink for many cold and tired trekkers and mountaineers.
“Previously found only in the Kiranti households, you can now get tongba in many places,” says Digpal, “And though it’s a traditional drink of the Limbus, it was the Sherpa people who actually commercialized it so that other people could enjoy it too.”
Even the capital city of Kathmandu, imbibed with Newar culture famous for its foods and drinks like aila and thwon, hasn’t been able to resist the taste of Tongba.
“Boudha, Talchhikhel and Nakhipot are now famous hubs for Tongba in Kathmadu,” says Digpal, “But instead of bamboo jars, you get it here in jars made of aluminum. It doesn’t really make a difference in the taste, though.”
Anuradha Tuladhar of Old Tashi Delek in Thamel, which has been serving Tongba for 25 years, says the drink has been gaining popularity among youngsters and foreigners alike.
“As it is light and cheap compared to other drinks, youngsters enjoy it a lot. Though tongba is essentially a winter drink, people come in for tongba during rainy seasons as well, and we serve it almost all year round,” she says.
A “dhungro” of tongba which usually carries half a kilogram of the fermented millet costs from Rs 80 to Rs 120 in Kathmandu.
Over at Talchikhel, Shyam Sunuwar owns one of the dozen places in the area famous for its tongba, pork barbecue and sukuti or dry meat. His one-storied local bar is easily filled with clients, mostly men, who come in groups with the exception of some who prefer the steaming Tongba and a thermos flask as their only company.
“During winter, even with the competition here, our shop alone exhausts 20-25 kgs of Tongba every day,” says Sunuwar who buys most of the fermented tongba mass from Bouddha, “As tongba is taken in a diluted form with lots of hot water, it’s not too strong and doesn’t give you a hangover. Moreover, it provides the warmth and water required by our body during cold seasons.”
However, he does warn that as with other alcoholic beverages, you have to consume it in limit and know how to drink it responsibly.
Digpal shares that he sees many youngsters and tongba novices drinking it the wrong way. But knowing how to drink tongba is equally important to enjoy it.
“To start with, you don’t stir the tongba mixture. That can give you a headache,” he says. “Once the hot water is poured into the tongba and settled in for five minutes, the best part of tongba is the surface water. So first you dig the straw two to three inches into the tongba and sip the juice. Then slowly, as the water recedes, you dig deeper and keep sipping. Once the juice is exhausted, you pour hot water again and start over from the surface again.”
Bikram Lama, 21, is one such youngster who loves going for a tongba with his friends during winter.
“I like it because it’s not too strong even for beginners. People who love hard drinks might not find the kick strong enough, but nothing beats tongba during winters,” says Lama, who usually heads out to Bouddha for the brew.
Bala Ram Sunuwar, who lives in Bouddha and works as a taxi driver, occasionally makes Tongba for his relatives scattered in Kathmandu who drink and sell it as well.
“Making tongba can be an arduous task,” says Sunuwar who buys his millet grains from Banepa or Trishuli, “You need to wash the millet grains at least 50 times before you cook it. Once it’s cooked and left to ferment with marcha, right storage is also very important.”
Sunuwar prepares almost 100 kg of tongba at a time and says the fermented whole grains can be stored for at least six months.
“Water and climate are also very important. Tongba made in summer can turn sour,” he says and he recalls his tongba making days in his village. “That’s why tongba made in the chilly environment of the hills with clear spring water always tastes the best.”
Taplejung is where Sunuwar says his ultimate Tongba destination is. But for beginners, Kathmandu is also a good place to start.
So besides imported hard drinks that taste like cough syrup, tongba can be the drink you would want to sip this cold winter to keep you warm and happy.