Tongba (also variously spelt Tongpa, or तोङवा in Nepali, and roughly translating as “emptiness”) is the drink of the Limbu people of Eastern Nepal, but despite some vigorous arguments on the Web, it is also commonly known as Tibetan Hot Beer. Whatever its origins, in Kathmandu you’ll find it being drunk by Tibetan people as much as by Sherpas and other Nepali people. Some people confuse it with another Nepalese drink, Chaang, but Chaang can be made from a wider selection of cereals or grains, and is served in a very different way. People may also tell you that actually it’s the drinking vessel that’s called a Tongba, and the liquid is called Jaand. But most people just refer to Tongba for both.
Tongba is unusual is so many ways. First, it is remarkably portable. It’s made from fermented millet grains which are cooked and cooled, then mixed with murcha, which contains yeasts. I suppose it ferments, over a couple of weeks, more like a bread dough than a wine, as it isn’t mixed with any liquid at this stage. This means that the grains are only damp, and can be carried around almost dry.
When it comes to imbibing, a good quantity of the fermented grain is put inside a Tongba container, traditionally wooden like mine, but sometimes metal. The container is then filled to the top with boiled water and left to steep for about five minutes. It’s then ready for the journey to begin!
I say journey, because everything you’ll read about this drink suggests its very low in alcohol, some say around 2%. Everything points to an evening that’s anything but rowdy. As a first timer you may be counselled to sip it slowly (through a metal straw, blind at the bottom end so that you don’t suck up the grains). When you reach the bottom and have drunk all the liquid, the container is filled up again. This will probably work three or four times before the flavour, and the alcohol, are exhausted. It’s not exactly potent, like the potato Arak, or the rice wine called Raksi. I’ve had the latter post-trek, and Lonely Planet’s suggestion that it can be like “headache-inducing paint stripper” isn’t far wrong.
You don’t really get drunk in a traditional sense on Tongba, but you feel incredibly chilled and mellow. After a while something more seems to kick in gently, and you might feel as if you are floating on a meandering river, or laying on a puffy white cloud. It’s not exactly hallucinogenic, but it kind of feels mildly that way. The “emptiness” translation seems strangely apt. You may show a desire to lie down somewhere comfortable. It’s probably something to do with the bacteria in with the yeast in the murcha. Some people put it down to altitude, but that’s not likely in Kathmandu, even less so on the South Coast here. Those with more experience than I have suggested it can be surprisingly treacherous, and on Saturday evening the desire to take up a prone position was irresistibly strong. I had pre-loaded with half a bottle of Maximin Grünhauser’s Riesling Sekt, but that’s hardly the same as if I’d knocked back three negronis first.
What does it taste like? That’s not easy to describe. It’s mild, slightly milky, slightly mushroomy, with even some bready hints. It doesn’t taste bitter and it’s quite smooth. It certainly tastes nice, and only slightly alcoholic. It’s sufficiently unusual when you first try it to make you a little unsure, but it seems to grow on most people. Certainly, for me, the only thing which makes me wary is the consequence of drinking too much, not the flavour.
In the circumstances I can’t exactly tell you where to buy some, though it’s possible a Nepalese restaurant in the UK might have it. But I will not be drinking it in quantity if I have a long journey home – bound to fall asleep on the train and wake up in a siding somewhere. Certainly seek it out if you are in Nepal, and it’s said to be available in Sikkim and Darjeeling too.
For a bit of entertainment, watch this – it’s a song about Tongba:
Gube Lobsang – Emptiness-Tongpa
What I won’t put up is the video my daughter took…of the moment I sank from kneeling to prone, one semi-graceful slide towards the edge of oblivion.
Now…what did you all get for Christmas…besides the bottle of Baileys liqueur?
Wow, I have not heard of this before, quite an adventure!
Yes, an adventure it was. “Treacherous” is one way I’ve heard it described. It sort of sneaks up on you like a silent leopard. How 2% alcohol can have such an effect is quite a mystery.
Thanks for a great write-up!
I’ve been meaning to make an attempt at making this at home for years, and even brought home a handful of white murcha patties from Sikkim during my last trip to the area.
Any thoughts on how you actually make it? I would love to introduce some friends at home who may never have the privilege of trying it otherwise. It certainly is a unique buzz!
David, excuse late reply. It is very easy to make. All you do is pour boiling (or slightly better, almost boiling) water onto the mulch. As you can see in the photos I have one of the traditional containers but you could use a jug.
It infuses quite swiftly and people tend to start drinking as soon as it’s not too hot. I also have a special metal straw. It’s crimped on the bottom end. This stops solids getting up and into your mouth.
The mulch will last for pretty much as many steeps in water as you care to risk over an evening. I threw ours away after that in case of bacteria forming, but maybe that’s my western caution.
It does creep up on you. Not really sure why. It isn’t very alcoholic. The feeling is pleasant. Not like getting drunk really, but you get VERY relaxed. As you say, it’s a pretty unique buzz. Hope it goes well. One thing, I decided to wrap the open mulch that we didn’t use the first time and put it in the fridge for further use. All gone now.
Thanks for getting back to me. I’m curious about how to make the tongba from scratch, using the finger millet (ragi) and murcha (yeast pattie). I’ve got both, but I’m unsure about how to proceed with the fermentation. Do you have any insight? It sounds like you’re making your own at home. Thanks, friend!
I got the stuff ready mixed in Nepal from one of those drinking dens with a sheet over the door. A friend brought it over for Christmas, though I have been in Nepal a lot these past two years.
So all we had to do was add hot water.
Fermentation is simple in theory. Some yeasts start the fermentation. Heat helps get it going. Then the yeasts eat up the sugars and turn them into alcohol. In the case of Tongba, not much alcohol.
I’m not an expert, but what I’d think about doing is mix the two, put in a plastic bag, and stick it in the airing cupboard if you have one, or by the boiler. Not saying it will work without fail. I’m sure there are people out there who have the answer. Good luck. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.
Thanks, David. I appreciate your help. I’d heard that you just cook the millet, let it cool to room temperature, and then mix in the murcha….but I’m unsure about the rest of it.
What kind of a container do I use to ferment it in? Do I create an airtight seal? Do I need to submerge the grains in liquid? Can I really just dump it all in a bag and let it sit untouched? I’ll keep digging! Thanks =)
I think you just mix it together into a paste and adding the hot water when you drink it does the rest. That’s my reading of it. It only gets to about 2% alcohol, I’m told. But don’t take my comments as correct if someone else knows better. Having got the stuff pre-mixed myself, that’s the bit I don’t know.
Thanks for your help, my friend! I’ll keep you updated; I’m going to make an attempt in the coming month. Best!
Will be genuinely interested to hear how you get on, David.
Enjoyed reading this given that my wife and I fell in love with Tongba many years ago when visiting Nepal. We’re actually about to start producing & selling in Germany so if you happen to visit Bavaria send us a message and we’ll organize a tasting event 🙂
That’s so great to hear, Tobias!
Did you have any trouble finding the ragi (finger millet) and genuine Nepalese murcha (yeast cake), or are you using a substitution of some kind?
Would love to hear more about how you intend to produce this and your techniques.
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Yeah, the ingredients are not really easy to find in this part of the world. We are importing organic finger millet from India as we couldn’t find a way to grow it locally (yet) and didn’t want to use a substitute. As for the Murcha, we’re actually using a Chinese Murcha that we source from an Asia importer – while we did bring some homemade cakes from the Asam market in Kathmandu that was not really the repeatable solution we were looking for..
Hi Tobias, well no immediate plans, but visited Nuremberg some years ago and loved the place, so if I do make it down there I’ll remember you. Massive luck selling it. It’s great stuff. I’d love to hear how it goes.
Thanks, D – Will keep you posted 🙂
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Hi Tobias. I’ve got a batch going myself. I found some red finger millet at the local Indian grocer, although it’s a bit expensive at $2.50 per pound. I used Chinese yeast balls from a different asian market, and am curious what the difference in taste is going to be.
I’d love to know more about how your methods. How long will you ferment the millet? And will you do it in enclosed containers?
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