Like most other residents of Biyonagar village in Kokrajhar district, Phonen Narzary follows the ancient way of Bathouism, the religion of the Bodo people. On a sunny afternoon, Phonen can lay out soaked rice on a wide swath of cloth. It&rsquos in preparation for a fresh batch of Zau, the traditional rice beer beloved by Bodos. In another room, he has a pot of rice fermenting, a batch in another stage of the process. Like the altar of the Sijou tree found in every Bodo household, this simple set-up to make rice beer is also ubiquitous across Bodoland. That&rsquos because Zau holds a special place in the Bodo way of life.
Consumed in different ways on different occasions, Zau has social, cultural and religious significance. Not quite a daily quaff, Zau is a respectful offering to guests, consumed as part of festivals, social functions or special occasions, used as medicine, to strengthen social bonds, and even offered to the gods. No ritual or custom is complete without it. Zau is also believed to have medicinal properties, from being a cure for insomnia, headaches, body aches, inflammation, diarrhoea, urinary problems, and deworming to aiding in cholera treatment. During rituals and festivals such as Kherai and Garja, a customary offering of Zau is made to the divinities. It is a drink that unites as well as heals. Social bonds are formed and forged around them.
Whether it is weaving or cooking, hunting, agriculture or sericulture, knowledge of folk medicine or foods, the Bodo approach to life is aligned with a deep connection to nature. This is evident in the making of Zau or Zumai as well. Many varieties of Zau differ somewhat in their taste and flavour depending on the type of rice used, the method of making and the use they&rsquore put to. Zau Gwthang, Maibrani Zau, Zau Gwran or Sereb are some of the common variants.
The kind of Zau depends first on what is known as emaw or emao &ndash this is basically a starter yeast cake that is prepared from soaked raw rice combined with a few medicinal herbs, leaves and roots. While various kinds of rice beer are made by communities across the northeast, the combination of herbs used differs vastly and that makes all the difference to the quality of the beer. Among the Bodo people, these plant materials could include jackfruit leaves, plantain leaves, pineapple leaf, roots of agarchita and a wildflower called mwkhwna bibar. The rice and herbs are ground together to a fine powder. The powder is then mixed with water to form a thick paste and divided into portions to form discs that are about an inch thick, and about three inches in diameter. These are liberally sprinkled with emaw mwkhang &ndash that is the powder from the previous batch of emaw and then kept wrapped in rice straw for a while. This practice of sprinkling the previous batch of emaw is believed to be beneficial to carry on the yeast culture. The discs are slowly dried &ndash first for a few days indoors and later under the hot sun for four or five days before being put into earthenware for storage.
For the Zau proper, a quantity of rice &ndash between 3 to 5 kilos &ndash is first boiled in an iron or brass cooking vessel. The cooked rice is then spread out on a bamboo mat or plantain leaf to cool. About two or four cakes of emaw are ground into powder, which is then mixed with the boiled rice. The whole mixture is then stored in a covered maldang, a thoroughly dry earthenware vessel, for about 4-8 days, depending on temperatures and the season. Water is then added to the mixture, mixed well and strained to yield a gracious quantity of rice beer, a heady and strong brew. Zau is typically consumed fresh within a week or so.
Zau gwthang gives the sweet-tasting Zumai Matha, which is the pure extract from the rice without any water, and then there is zau gisi, to which some water has been added. Maibrani Zau is a sweet and strongly flavoured beer, made from a sticky variety of rice called Maibra. Maibrani zau is considered a good quality beer. Often served in small bowls, the sweet beer is a strong drink to be consumed in small portions.
Phonen Narzary, who sells his beer for weddings, special occasions and even funerals in the village, makes zau gwran or sereb, a special distilled and filtered whisky which requires further stages of preparation. The pot of fermented rice is heated with firewood, causing the vapours to move up into another porous pot kept above it. Above that, a pot of cool water condenses the steam, which is then collected via an aperture into bottles and containers. This fiery, raw spirit tastes somewhat like whisky and can pack quite a punch. &ldquoUsing 5 kg of rice gives you about 6 liters of distilled zau,&rdquo Narzary says.
There is no doubt Zau makes for genial gatherings. Unwinding after a hard day in the agricultural fields, men and women sit around in a loose, informal circle of friends, neighbors and relatives, holding out small bowls of steel or brass, which are refilled with fresh servings of Zau. Bodo evenings are made of these moments. Given the utmost significance Zau assumes in multiple aspects of Bodo life, it is much more than a homemade traditional drink, it is the great lubricant of Bodo society.
Zau is made throughout the year in Bodoland, and a fresh batch can be found at any time.
Where To Buy
A modest 100 INR will fetch a litre of Zau, but acquiring it is tricky. No ready wine shops will sell it to tourists, and one would need to go to a village, approach a beer maker and buy it off them. In Kokrajhar and its environs, Bidinta Basumatary (7002393875) can guide Zau seekers to the right people.
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