Thursday, March 17, 2011

Raise a Pint...but not of This

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Despite growing up Roman Catholic and being a huge Guinness fan, I have let my personal celebrations of this holiday grow pathetically tepid in recent years. I've wandered down to the Chicago River to see it dyed green for the occasion (while living out action sequences from Harrison Ford's The Fugitive). Other than that, I have generally spent the day lamenting the not-quite-spring weather and avoiding being vomited upon by overenthusiastic merrymakers.

So, it makes sense that this year I didn't seek out the craic that could surely be found in the Irish bars of Kathmandu's tourist mecca, Thamel. Instead, I went in search of an alcoholic high of a different kind. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to meet chhyang:

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Chhyang is an alcoholic "drink" found in Nepal, Tibet, and throughout other parts of the Himalayan region. It is made most commonly with fermented rice but can be concocted using barley or millet. I'm not sure how the locals first discovered this brew (although I am certain it involved a bit of desperation), but I first encountered it the other night when a brave new acquaintance ordered it at dinner without batting an eye. Intrigued, I joined him, despite the warning I had recently received that such local firewater is usually made with untreated water and is thus a food poisoning death wish if under 40 percent alcohol. No one warned me that tasting the stuff would bring a death wish of its own. Legend has it that chhyang attracts the Yeti, known to raid Himalayan villages in search of a sip. Learning this, I fear that the Abominable Snowman is more abominable and beastly than we all dared imagine.

I should pause a moment to point out that I am a storied lover of food and drink. To this day, I am proud that there are few things I find distasteful in the culinary realm. My wife (lovingly?) calls me her garbage disposal; I will eat anything. Such habits had me looking like this in third grade:

Can you even see the stylish turtleneck?

But back to the chhyang. There is a more drinkable, and I think common, version technically called chamal ko chhyang.

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chamal ko chhyang

This stuff is served "chilled" (read: just below room temp). It's thick and a bit chunky, the consistency of very pulpy orange juice. It tastes like a sour, fermented, strong sake (Japanese rice alcohol). It is lightly carbonated, and my waiter encouraged me to drink quickly before it went flat. Bottoms up!

The thicker stuff, pictured at the top of this post, is chamal ko chhyang bhuteko. As you can see, it is served in a bowl with a spoon. Taking a bite of your alcohol may seem like a slightly thrilling change of pace, but this is no jello shot from your college days. First of all, the alcoholic sludge is served hot and has a slimy texture that can be described in no other words than fresh snot. It tastes sweeter than the liquid chhyang, almost tart. But, with the boozy aftertaste, the final impression is of something from your fridge that's gone putrid out in the sun.

So, while celebrating St. Patrick's Day wherever in the world you may be, I encourage you to raise a pint of your favorite tipple in a toast to friends, health, country, whatever you please. Please just assure me it's not a pint of fresh chhyang.

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