Did you know that the bowl of chatpata chana chaat that you like to pair with your favourite tipple was just as popular a drinking snack a thousand years ago?
There’s little doubt that ancient Indians liked a tipple or two. Classical texts mention a clutch of spirits and alcoholic drinks brewed from a host of different ingredients. They also mention a cornucopia of snacks and tidbits—from fresh ginger and rock-salt laced chickpeas to meat intense with flavours that are sour and pungent—that were enjoyed by people on the subcontinent eons ago. The Mahabharata for instance refers to different kinds of food consumed with a variety of alcoholic brews. In one episode, describing a picnic in Pindaraka, attended by Krishna and Balabhadra, sugared or salted cakes and sub-acid fruits are served with alcoholic drinks to take out the pungency. Besides that, there were fried birds and wine biscuits were also served to the picnickers.
Many of these primitive alcoholic drinks were consumed typically neat and it was customary to eat wine biscuits with these, ‘they remove the smarting in the mouth caused by raw spirit," writes British orientalist Robert Needhanm Cust in an 1888 essay titled The Liqour Traffic in British India. Such was the significance of these wine biscuits (by inference wine itself) that one of the names of Lord Shiva - Nakulesh - is deciphered by scholars as the “Lord of wine biscuits’. "No drinking party was complete without these tidbits,” he writes. Even medical texts like Vagbhatta’s Ashtangahridaya mentions meat, apupa (malpua) cakes, ghee, fresh ginger and greens together with black salt as suitable accompaniments to alcoholic beverages.
James McHugh, in the fascinating book, An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian History and Religions delves into the country’s ancient and complex relationship with alcohol, and also talks about the ubiquitous snacks - upadamsa - that accompanied these spirits - be it at luxurious drinking parties or shops selling sura, the ancient grain-based beer. In his book, Mchugh refers to texts like Vatsayana’s Kamasutra that lists a bevy of alcoholic beverages recommended for drinking fiestas that were invariably served with ubiquitous snacks - “various bitter, spicy and sour accompanying snacks, such as fruit and green vegetables that are salty.”
On the other hand, the 12th century Sanskrit text Manasollasa dedicates an entire section to 'drinking snacks’ that range from fragrant meats rich with brown mustard and meat flavoured with saffron, citron, fresh ginger and asafoetida to salad-like dishes of chickpeas tossed with pepper infused spice mixture and salt and puckering bites like onion bulbs soaked in tamarind water and salt, and spice-laced slivers of fresh ginger. Most of these treats are almost identical to the bar nibbles one might encounter in the present age at an urban bar or rural watering hole even today. The focus is on food that complements the alcohol but incites one to drink more.
Bold tastes- fiery, tart, salty and pungent (essentially tastes that incite thirst)—continue to rule drinking tables across the country. And every region around the country has their own traditional bar nibbles. Kerala’s toddy shops are known for serving up a smorgasbord of lip-smacking dishes to go with indigenous toddy or palm wine. The range is mind-boggling - from spice-laced peanuts and boiled eggs to more elaborate dishes like beef fries and duck roasts, fried mussels and spiced clams. Mouth-puckeringly piquant pickles are a customary serve at these establishments. But as travellers and writers Priya Ganapathy and Anurag Mallick would find out on their travels across the neighbouring state of Karnataka (as part of their research for Oota Bangalore that serves hyper-local cuisines) it’s not just Kerala that pairs its alcohol with zesty food. From crunchy treats of small fishes slathered with byadgi chili paste, rolled in semolina and deep fried in coastal Karnataka to addictive bits of fried pork fat with a touch of meat on them, in Coorg, the duo discovered a bevy of steadfastly regional treats that are typically paired with alcohol.
A particularly interesting one is the Batti Chutney - a spirited dish made with offal, mainly spleen and liver - pounded together with red hot chilies and garlic, and rolled into gummy balls. “We came across this dish among the Idigas, in the border town of D Hirehal near Bellari, close to the border between Karnataka and Andhra. Idigas also make a dish of tripe called Nallavanta to pair with their alcohol. A bit of blood, typically collected by the community whenever a goat is slaughtered, is added to the dish towards the end. It gives the dish a distinct metallic taste,” says Ganapathy. Offal and other cheaper cuts of meat (aptly called janta cuts in Bengaluru) are in fact among the most popular accompaniments for booze for the common masses.
“Again, Saoji/Savji eateries or khanavalis in Karnataka (also found in Maharashtra) that serve alcohol, a popular dish served as a drinking snack is the Khara boti,” says Mallick. It’s a preposterously simple dish of boti or meat cooked with nothing but khara or salt - a study in clean, addictive flavours. “Another crowd favourite at these functional eateries Kaima Unde - or spiced meatballs peppered with fresh herbs, with a distinct fieriness from fresh green chilies,” adds Ganapathy. The meatballs are first fried and then tossed up with fried onions. In Coorg, on the other hand, chili pork cooked with lots of chilies, garlic, and tart kachampuli vinegar, and drier versions of the classic pandi curry are favourites.
Atish Antonio Fernandez, who runs the iconic Joseph Bar in the heart of Panjim’s Latin quarters and the more recently-opened Miska Bar, points out that Goa’s traditional bar snacks can range from raw mango slices sprinkled with chili powder and salt and boiled eggs topped with chaat masala to a more elaborate Portuguese-Goan snack called rissoles - fried pastry dough stuffed with meat or fish.“Besides, there are other traditional bar snacks like chickpea salad, boiled sausages, and Goan-samosas with a range of fillings like minced beef or chicken that we serve up at my bars,” he adds. He talks about Dangar or cutlets made with prawns (sungtache dangar) , clams (tisryache dangar) or even vegetables that are great traditional appetizers to go with alcohol. At his bars, Fernandez sources local snacks from local women who make them at their home-based enterprises.
In Odisha, especially in the tribal belt of Western Odisha, writer and home cook Sujata Dehury says, puta bhaja or goat tripe cooked with spices, kai anda or red ants and red ant eggs stir-fried or pounded with salt and chilies, or sautéed jhari poka (macrotermes) are traditional snacks consumed with the indigenous rice-based liquor - handiya. In coastal Odisha, sukhua bhaja or dried fish, laced with spices and shallow fried is also popular as an accompaniment to alcohol. Pork kassa or pork braised with spices, is also a much-loved dish in the tribal belts, Dehury adds.
“Up north in Upper Assam too red ant eggs along with silkworm pupae, smoked pork and smoked river fish are ideally paired with locally brewed rice wine,” says Mumbai-based home cook Gitika Saikia. She points out rice wine is steeped in ritualistic significance and sentimentality. It is typically consumed during festivals, used to mark auspicious occasions and making offerings of rice wine to ancestors is a common practice. Often during these times, it’s paired with specific food items. “During the festival of Ali Ayi Ligang, the Mising people typically drink rice wine with pork cooked with indigenous leafy greens like dimoru paat or fig leaves and mesaki paat or ombe leaves.
During Bohag Bihu in April, some communities customarily eat pork cooked with dried jute leaves which is distinctly bitter, with their rice wine,” says Saikia. Ahoms also pair their rice wine with roasted rice flour called hando guri. Besides, pork cooked with the yeast residue from rice wine making is also paired with brewed drink. In fact, the combination of rice wine and pork is a sign of auspiciousness. “Among the Ahoms, when a new bride arrives there’s a ritual where nine married women take turns to feed her rice wine along with a bit of cooked pork,” Saikia says. In Sikkim, on the other hand, sausages made with minced beef and semi-cooked rice or semolina spiced with local herbs and spices, are eaten with Chhang, especially during New Years Celebrations, along with a fiery chutney made of fireball chilies.
Of course, no conversation around alcohol is complete without a trip up north to Punjab - the deep-fried, ajwain-studded Amritsari fish, smoky tandoori chicken right out of the bhatti and tawa mutton or grilled goat meat with a host of alliums and spice, that Mallick calls the holy trinity of Punjab’s drinking snacks. Vegetarians have their paneer tikka laced with bright orange marinade and bowls full of chana chaat, with an extra squeeze of lime. These are all classics, best paired with a Patiala peg.
But no matter where one is, there’s no drinking without digging into that bottomless bowl of salted peanuts.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.