It was Bacchus leading the way to all the hot spots of the country, where the nectar was revered and loved. A short tenure in Nasik, the wine capital, was enough to set aside zunka bhakar and pick up the recipe for... not Maharashtrian delicacies but wine. Come grape season and my first lot of wine was ready to be bottled. Despite Sula vineyard ensconced not very far, homemade wine was what excitement was all about. Excitement? Well, you had to meet Coonoor's Mr Eapen Jacob (God bless his soul) of Beulah's Farm fame, to understand the reverence with which this spirit is concocted. A winding path hugging the Nilgiri hillside, had visitors returning with Cheshire grins plastered on their faces. Reason was, of course, Mr Jacob and his famed hospitality. He reminded me of the indulgent grandma who coaxed guests to try her amla pickle, the mango pickle, the mixed vegetable pickle, the lemon pickle and all the other conceivable pickles. Mr Eapen Jacob was the gentleman with a soft smile and a sway as he stood and passionately described each of his babies. He was the perfect host who offered twenty different homemade wines for tasting, before visitors came away with those grins and armful of bottled nectar. That's what they meant to him. Nectar.
The first time the warmth of the nectar spread was in an Assamese village in Golaghat district where we were invited for a meal of the newly harvested crops ( Nowkhua). The host served a bell metal bowlful of the finest rohi, a sweet, clear, pinkish liquid, and stepped back with eager anticipation. With every sip, the warmth spread and world became a much happier place. Sitting on the mud plastered floor on wooden peeras, with skewered meat and fried fish fresh from the backyard pond, surrounded by golden paddy fields, life was so much simpler. That I was still in college helped in the daydreaming.
Last year's visit to Upper Assam took us to an acquaintance's house near Silapathar. Through a neat and clean sprawling courtyard, the ripe pomelos almost touching the ground, and an array of herbs and vegetables growing in the backyard, the Mishing family greeted us like old friends. And there I met my old forgotten friend, rohi. Yes, the excitement welled up. And I acknowledged that rohi had indeed refined her presence in these parts. She was a sweeter and lighter version of the one in Golaghat. She had indeed grown elegant. For the first time I also saw where she came from.
Rice is boiled and allowed to ferment for a stipulated period with 'pitha ', a rice cake with yeast and herbs. It is this 'pitha' that makes all the difference to the 'rohi'. The proportion of the ingredients is generally a trademark of every household. Although we did find these 'pithas' by the sackful in the local farmer's market, they say the ones made by the grandmas are the best. To the cauldron with the fermenting rice, some herbs are added to dissuade fungus formation in this humid tropical parts. Ash of burnt hay and straws are also mixed to this. Once it is ready for filtration, it is poured into a funnel shaped basket. The first clear liquid that seeps out from the bottom is the rohi, the finest quality of the lot. Once this is collected, more water is added in the subsequent lot. But they do not enjoy the same finesse as the rohi.Technically speaking, it should be termed as rice beer and not wine since it is made of grain instead of grape. But the end result so belies the labels that it compels change in positioning.
So how do I describe rohi to the uninitiated? Well you could say, champagne is the smarter sparkly exotic cousin who went to a finishing school and was exposed to a better market. Rohi, on the other hand is the elegant beauty lost in the shadows of the local ramp, waiting to step out of the wings and take center stage. And one day I hope she will get her dues. Cheers till then!