One of this writer’s friends came and discussed the three articles written relating to the decision on the partial lifting of prohibition. The gentleman, who wishes to remain incognito, is a social drinker taking not more than three pegs of “Machin” once or twice a month. He brought out certain issues which led this writer to think and do further research resulting in this article.
The government claimed that our local liquor or Yu or Kalei is substandard as it contains higher levels of some by-products during the fermentation and distillation process vis-a-vis the standards laid down by FSSAI.
In fact, one representative of the Government even claimed that experts from Goa claimed it is unfit for drinking and is poisonous. The basis, however, is not brought out.
The standards laid down by FSSAI for country liquor and other distilled drinks like vodka, rum, brandy, whisky, etc are different with higher by-product levels prescribed for some in the latter. This indicates that these are not that injurious to health.
In fact, traditionally Yu is the base for many medicines and some of the uses and the method of preparation were provided in PK Singh’s paper “Yu a Traditional Alcoholic beverage: methods of preparation and Medicinal Value '' in Kangla Lanpung, 2016.
Decoctions prepared from Yu and various herbs, including resins were described and the final products were either used orally or as rubbing alcohol for different ailments.
The critical component of the fermentation process is “Hamei” which are of different types depending on the place, such as Andro, Sekmai, Phayeng, Jiribam, Bishnupur, Tengnoupal, etc though similar ingredients were used and the shape, size and covering may be slightly different.
For preparation about three kg of rice was soaked in water for about half an hour and excess water drained out and allowed to air dry for about 15 minutes. These were then pounded into powder.
About 250-300 g of finely chopped or powdered dried bark of Yangli (Albizia myriophylla or A. kalkora) is steeped in water and filtered.
The brownish filtrate is added to the rice powder and kneaded into a paste. The paste is shaped into flattened cake either elliptical or rounded by hand. This is “Hamei” which is kept over a hearth for maturing over a base of a mass of paddy husk of paddy straw and covered by paddy straw and cloth.
After four-five days, fine droplets cover the Hamei which is taken out and air dried.
The whole process is carried out under dark or diffused light. The Hamei is ready to use when alcoholic smells come out, which are due to diacetyl, volatile phenols and esters.
Hamei is the core of Yu giving the distinctive taste like absinthe due to fennel, anise and wormwood (Artemesia absninthium), crème de menthe due to mint, disaronno due to apricot kernel oil, etc.
K Jeyaram et al of IBSD in their paper “Molecular identification of yeast species associated with ‘Hamei’- a traditional starter used for rice wine production in Manipur, India” in the International Journal of Food Microbiology, 2008 reported that 163 isolates were obtained from 54 Hamei collected from villages and after molecular identification was carried out, 17 different restriction profiles were obtained.
Nine groups were identified as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Pichia anomala, Trichosporon species, Candida tropicalis, Pichia guilliermondi, Candida parapsilosis, Torulaspora delbrueckii, Pichia fabianii, and Candida montana. Profile of eight groups does not match with any of the existing yeast database.
The most frequent yeast species of Hamei were S cerevisiae (32.5%), P. anomala (41.7%), and Trichosporon species (8%). It was also reported that most of the 53 strains of S. cerevisiae examined exhibited a common species specific pattern, a distinct degree of chromosomal length polymorphism and variable DNA were observed within the species.
From this paper, it can be concluded that the number of yeast species found in Hamei is large and there are strains within the same species. There are numerous reports of yeast diversity elsewhere.
The report of some eight groups of yeast that could not be identified is a call for further studies as it may contain yeast which gives the distinctive quality of Yu and in fact the state government should provide grants for further study on this topic as it can open to commercial benefits. It is these variations which gives the unique taste of Yu which was so famous that during WWII there was a popular army song “Carry me back to Shadow busti, where a bottle of Yu cost saare char rupee”.
In Manipur, there is a tendency to believe what outsiders say, and in the instant case, some experts from Goa had perhaps advised the state government but one need to understand that the starting material for Feni is cashew apple while in Manipur it is rice.
Further, every place has its unique “poison” which makes them unique and popular. Japan has sake, a rice wine, Korea has Soju, a rice liquor, Russia has Vodka, Scotland has Whisky, Mexico has Tequila from blue agave, Caribbean has Rum from sugarcane molasses, etc which are all unique.
If standard yeast obtained commercially is used for liquor production, it will no longer be the “Yu” of Manipur, as without Hamei which includes Yangli, it will be the run of the mill liquor or alcohol produced from rice.
There may be some variation of the quantity of by-products of our local products from the standard prescribed by FSSAI, there can be two options- first is to reduce them to bring them within the prescribed limit or second ask FSSAI to provide a separate standard for “Yu”, as they have prescribed different standards for Vodka, Rum, Whisky, etc.
If the government wants to produce industrial alcohol from rice so be it, but the traditional method of preparation must continue though with improved standard using earthen pots as done earlier or stainless steel utensils and tongji or glass or stainless steel pipes to condense the liquor vapour during distillation.
Even while preparing Hamei, better hygiene can be adopted. But to discontinue using Hamei or Yangli, will be death to one of our old traditions. One fails to understand the glee of Andro Chakpas on the announcement of the decision of partial lifting of the prohibition, without realising that the intent of the government is to ban the cottage industry of Yu production replaced by industrial liquor which cannot be called Yu or Kalei.
As mentioned earlier, it may be the different species of yeast and its strains or yangli which gives the distinctive flavour of Sekmai, Andro, Phayeng, etc. Is it the intent of the government to kill the tradition by shifting to industrial production of alcohol?
The cottage industry of Yu production needs to continue and the products can be marketed at a premium price, provided the state government seeks GI tag for the product.
It may be mentioned that yangli trees or climbers are found in other parts of the globe. There is an urgent need to rope in experts to work out the details to apply for the GI tag of say Yu or Kalei and as per the guideline only one name can be used. If GI tagging is done it can be sold at a premium and our traditional brewer can continue to sustain side by side the industrial production; provided every batch is properly tested.
The government needs to examine the matter in its entirety rather than following the dictum “Lamgi san na machi shang-ee” that whatever outside experts say is right despite the fact they do not know the traditional Yu preparation, its cultural significance, its medicinal value, its distinctive taste, etc.
One question to the experts is whether a few percentage increases in volatile acids, total esters or total aldehydes, etc impacts the health of the imbibers as in certain categories of distilled “poison” the percentage prescribed is higher than that of country liquor.
The main cause of liver cirrhosis is not Yu per se but excessive intake of alcohol. It is to re-emphasise that total esters, total aldehydes, total volatile acids, furfural, etc are not adulterants but by-products, and the meaning of the terms must be clearly understood by the policy makers and only speak out when one grasps the meanings.
If after the distillation of Yu, methanol is added the final product is adulterated with methanol as the adulterant which can kill quickly.
Due to the presence of a large number of microbes in the Hamei and even in the process of fermentation by the yeasts, there is bound to be some by-products like acetic acid, etc and this is nothing but normal.
Yu is our traditional product and is one of our intangible heritage assets like any other heritage assets and it is our responsibility to ensure its survival like any other tangible or intangible heritage assets. Just because one is a teetotaller or one wants to make a fast buck by producing industrial alcohol does not mean one should destroy our heritage.
(The views expressed are personal)
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