Tongba: Traditional Local Beer

Description

Tongba is a local drink that is popular in Ngangla Trong gewog in Zhemgang district. It is a traditional fermented drink that is made from millet. If one visits Ngangla gewog, the first thing that the visitor gets served is Tongba, which is a symbol of welcome and joy. According to elderly people in Zhemgang, Tongba is culturally and religiously important to the local people. This fermented drink is served during important occasions such as annual rituals, festivals, celebrations, and as an energizer after a hard day’s work. It is a popular drink that is not commercially produced as of yet.

History

Bhutan, despite its small size, has a rich list of traditional food and beverages. This variety has developed, probably, because of its mountainous terrain and isolation. Villages and communities depended on their immediate environment to grow crops that are suitable to their region and climate. In high altitudes like Bumthang and Haa, people mostly cultivate bitter buckwheat, sweet buckwheat, wheat and barley. In central Bhutan like in Kheng, people mostly grow maize and millet for their sustenance. Based on the geographical locations and the availability of resources, people have developed their own distinct food culture and drinks.

For example, in Ngangla Trong and Panbang, Tongba is a popular traditional drink, which is made from millet. It is similar to local brews like Ara, Bangchang, Singchang, and Changkoe. In Bhutan, alcohol use dates back to the pre-Buddhist time; especially in the Bon religion, alcohol is used to appease local deities.  And even in Buddhist scriptures, it is mentioned that alcohol is offered as a duetsi (ambrosia/nectar).

Although Tongba is prepared by every household in Ngangla Trong and Panbang, people do not know when it was first introduced in their region. Nevertheless, it is a local drink that is mainly served to guests, or drunk to relax their tired muscles after a day’s work. Moreover, in Bhutan, every important social function is marked by offering Marchang and Serkem to bring blessings to the individual, or to the community. Therefore, people in Kheng say that beverages like Tongba and Bangchang are an important part of their social life.

 

Ingredient and the Process Involved in Making Tongba

The main ingredient used for Tongba is millet, and in Khengkha (local dialect) it is called Kongko. In Ngangla Trong, every household cultivates millet depending on the size of their farm. The millet is cultivated twice a year: the first cycle starts around January- February and is harvested in the month of April-May; the second cultivation starts from June-July and is harvested around November. However, it is observed that millet cultivation has dwindled in the last decades, ever since Bhutan imported rice from India.

To prepare Tongba, the millet is first cleaned and then washed.  After washing, it is cooked in a clean pot without a trace of salt. It is said that salt will spoil the flavor of the Tongba and make it sour. Once the millet is thoroughly cooked, it is spread on a plastic sheet to bring the temperature down. Then, the yeast is spread on the cooked millet and mixed thoroughly. After that, the whole mass is lumped in the middle, and it is covered first with plastic and then with a light blanket to let it sweat and ferment. If it is in the summer, it takes a day or two to ferment and, in the winter, it takes longer days to ferment. The maker will just know when it is fermented because it will effuse the whole house with a sweet smell.

After that, the fermented millet is stored in buckets and plastic jars, and sealed tightly to further the process of fermentation and maturation. During the maturation period, it develops a distinct taste and flavor.  The Tongba is ready to be served as a drink in a week or two of its storage time, and the flavor will be sweet and mellow. The longer it is preserved, the stronger the flavor gets.  Traditionally, it is stored for months and some even for a year, so that it develops a better and stronger flavor. People also believe that if the drink is matured and aged, it is considered medicinal.

Tongba: Distinct Drinking Culture

Tongba is not served in a glass, or a mug, or in cup-like other beverages. The fermented millet is served in a small cylindrical bamboo container called a Keg Tongba (ཀེག་སྟོང). It is believed that the bamboo jar will give out a different flavor, but now people use plastic jars to serve Tongba. Then, boiled water or warm water is poured into the bamboo container to the brim. It is left undisturbed so as to bring out the flavorful juice. A fine bamboo straw called Pibshing (པིབ་ཤིང་) is inserted into the bamboo container so that the drinker can suck the sweet alcohol out of the fermented grains.

As long as there is a steady supply of hot water, a jar of Tongba can be drunk several rounds. Therefore, more hot water is added to the Tongba jar and the process is repeated until there is no trace of flavor. The potency of the drink depends on how long the fermented millet is stored and matured.  Some say that a novice drinker gets drunk from just one Kegtong, but a seasoned drinker probably takes two or three kegtongs to get them drunk, or not at all.

Social Significance

In Bhutan, every religious and social function is marked by offering Serkem (libation) and Marchang to the local deities to bring blessings and good fortunes. During social gatherings and celebrations, alcohol increases the sociability and enjoyment of many people. For different events, alcohol is called by different names: tshugchang, or the initiation drink; tshogchang, or the drink for social gathering; tashichang, or the concluding drink; tendrelchang, or the propitious drink; lamchang, or the drink that is served before a journey; braechang, or the departure drink ; dongchang, or the welcome drink;  and trochang, or the drink of enjoyment.

In every community in Bhutan, alcohol finds a significant place especially during archery matches, mourning, birthday celebration, and annual rituals. Families, friends, and well-wishers bring alcohol to pay respect and also to increase social bonding.

According to oral sources, it is said that alcohol users in Zhemgang have decreased drastically in recent years. Perhaps, it is because of alcohol control interventions from the district level, and/or, people have understood the socioeconomic burden of alcohol.

Conclusion

In Bhutan, difficult geographical factors limited cross-cultural mobility, and as a result, each village developed a distinct drinking culture and food habits. Similarly, Tongba is a popular local drink in Ngangla Trong gewog in Zhemgang district. It is a traditional fermented drink that is served to visitors, which symbolizes a joyful welcome. Moreover, Tongba drink plays a significant role culturally, socially, and religiously. Not only does Tongba bring much social bonding, but this drink also serves an important role during events such as annual rituals, festivals, celebrations, and as an energizer after a hard day’s work.

However, as a result of development, so much cultural change is taking place in modern Bhutan, including drinks and food culture. Not many people are into brewing local drinks and ara because the factory products are easily available in the local market. Since food and beverages are a significant part of our culture, the community people and relevant stakeholders could try to preserve this tradition for posterity.

Reference

Thinlay, K. (2000). The Ill Effects of Alcohol (Dzongkha version). Thimphu: KMT Press.

Informants

Aum Chezom, 44, Ngangla Trong

Aum Rinchen Yangzom, 38, Panbang

Researcher

Dechen Tshering, Associate Lecturer, CLCS Takste, Royal University of Bhutan, 2019.

 

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