Newars, the inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley, are a sociable lot, and they are always on the lookout for the slightest excuse to have a bhoye (feast). Given the many socio-cultural events throughout the year (and the large number of festivals that the Valley is famous for), the Newars do not lack for opportunity either! A Newari feast is known as lapate bhoye during which, guests sit on narrow sukuls (straw mats that can be rolled up) and a lapate along with a salincha is placed before them (leaf plate and small clay bowl). The lapate is for the delicious food that will be served over a long drawn out affair while the salincha is for aaila (homemade fiery liquor made from barley or rice). The quality (purity) of aaila actually determines the quality of the entire feast. And, to accompany this fiery liquor of the Newras, half a dozen to a dozen types of meat delicacies which are also served.
Aside from this, the pouring of the aaila into the small salinchas is almost an art. It is poured by an expert female hand from a container called an anti (a brass vessel with a long narrow snout) from a long way above the tiny salincha. The streaming down of the liquor on to the salincha is a graceful sight indeed. With the rapid downing of the salinchas, the mood of the guests becomes more jovial and appetites become heartier. Soon enough, it is the aaila server who is the busiest person around! Aaila is also an integral part of many ceremonies since it is regarded as a pure offering for the gods. Newari women, especially those of a traditional bent, take great pride in distilling their own aaila using age-old recipes..
In other parts of Nepal and particularly in the hill and mountain areas, another fiery liquor, known as rakshi, is as popular as aaila is in the Kathmandu valley. Made usually from kodo (a Nepali variety of millet) although it can also be made from fruits, corn, rice, wheat or barley, rakshi burns its way down the gullet and lands in your stomach creating a most comfortable feeling. A tumbler or two is an excellent remedy to combat the biting cold of frosty nights up in the mountains.
The process of making rakshi is centuries-old. First, millet is cooked and left to ferment. Then it is distilled. After sieving the millet grains, it is mixed with some water and roundly boiled. Later, the cooked millet is left to ferment for three days in a basket. The fermented mixis then poured into an earthen pot and kept there for the next fortnight. Then it is distilled during which time, special utensils re used in addition to special cooking arrangements.
Rakshi, or aaila, is a good friend in times of happiness as well as in sorrow and, becsuse of its health benefits, is known colloquially as wasa (medicine) in Newari. Worldwide too, people are becoming familiar with rakshi as is evident from the fact that an online site (www.cnngo.com) has declared rakshi to be one of the world’s 50 most delicious drinks.