It was our last night in Henasku, a village located 3,500 metres (11,600 ft) above sea level in the Kargil district of Jammu & Kashmir. My sister and I had spent a week documenting the oral histories, music and culture of this remote region as part of Project Zbayul (meaning hidden village), a workshop organised by a travel start-up called Little Local.
Tucked behind a gorge along the national highway and hidden from the eyes of tourists visiting the Ladakh region, Henasku is home to about 150 residents. It was once a crucial stopover on the grand old Silk Route. The ruins of an old castle and the house of the erstwhile chieftain perched on a hill are testament to its glory days.
On that particular cold May evening, the air was rife with the woody scent wafting from a cackling bonfire. Under a moonlit sky speckled with stars, Ladakhi dance numbers blared on a loudspeaker. And as we danced, a local handed us a bottle of transparent, water-ish liquid. It’s arak, she told us.
Warmth flooded through our veins as we took a sip of this sharp potent local liquor.
You’ll find arak is most homes in the Himalayas, be it Ladakh, Spiti or even Manali. Locals make it by distilling a local liquor called chhang. A variant of beer, chhang with its complex, slightly fruity flavour is made by fermenting rice, barley or millets.
The distilled version that we tasted, on the other hand, was unsweetened with rough, fiery notes reminiscent of neat vodka. It takes about a week or two to distill this spirit, we were told. And the bottle given to us was apparently the only one available in the whole village at the time.
Arak, now a generic term for distilled liquor, lends its name to a similar term with interesting origins and possible links to the Chinese merchants and British sailors. In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu (a James Beard Award finalist), author Dan Jurafsky mentions arrack as “an early ancestor of rum, distilling the fermented rice together with molasses and palm wine”. The word arrack, he says, comes from the Arabic araq (sweat) and is related to words for other distilled spirits like anise-flavoured Levantine arak and the Croatian plum brandy rakia.
Back in the 16th century, Chinese factories were established to make arrack on Java and Sumatra islands in Indonesia. This arrack made for an interesting discovery for British and Dutch merchants, considering distilled spirits can survive the tropical heat without going bad. So, navies full of British sailors would stock immense quantities of arrack. Jurafsky mentions that around 1610, arrack became the main ingredient in the Punch – made by mixing arrack, citrus, sugar, water and spice – that cocktail historian David Wondrich described as “the original monarch of mixed drinks”.
An arrack-based drink was even offered by Emperor Jahangir to the English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, which was very strong and made him sneeze. This fact finds a mention in historian K. T. Achaya’s book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. He notes that arak was the original name for the exudate of date palm sap but later in India and elsewhere it became a term for distilled liquor, especially that from toddy, the fermented sap of the palmyra palm.
For the Ladakhis, as well as those living in the secluded hamlets in the Himalayas, arak is more than just a drink to be had after a meal. It brings them together on wintry nights and helps them survive the harsh, cold winds lashing the mountains.
It is also a celebration of their communal culture. And one that they’re more than willing to share with outsiders, as we realised while dancing around the bonfire and drinking copious amounts of arak, the last bottle in the village that the locals offered to us without any trepidation or hoarding for themselves.
All pictures by the author.
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Krutika Behrawala is an independent journalist on a quest to unearth stories hidden at the intersection of food and drink, history and culture. She enjoys experimental cocktails on good days but prefers a large G&T on bad ones.