Spirits By Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi
As the Indian winter ends, beach town Goa beckons. The heat is just coming into the peninsula and a beach begs for bumming around. While most beach bums in Goa will have beer, I like to have something more local - feni.
Feni is a Goan liquor. One kind is made from coconut toddy, the other from the juice of the cashew apple, both plants which thrive in Goa's tropical, coastal climate. Goa, India's smallest state, is tiny enough to be considered a little city, a mere dot on the map. It hugs the Arabian Sea on the Konkan region of the west coast. Its small area, less than 1,450 square miles, doesn't stop it from being India's richest state. But you could not tell from the way the people go about their day and do business. The vibe is as Caribbean as it can get in Asia, and the locals seem to run on "island time" where nothing is important enough to be rushed. I would credit more than Goa's beautiful beaches for the locals' sense of time management. I would like to believe it might be the feni.
Feni is to Goa, as Champagne is to Champagne, Scotch is to Scotland, tequila is to Mexico. It isÂ the first Indian liquor to be certified with the Geographical Indication (GI). In simple words, this means that feni is a specialty product that can be made only in Goa. And just like Champagne has the Methode Champenoise, Goa has its own indigenous, traditional way to distill its beloved booze.
In the case of the cashew apple, the fruit is crushed and put into a stone basin called the coimbi, which has a drain to allow the juice into another container called the kodem. This cashew juice, or neero, is placed underground for several days in the kodem and allowed to ferment. In the case of coconut feni, the sap is poured directly into the kodem. After its time underground, the fermented juice, is distilled. The product of the first distillation, 15 percent proof arak can be had by itself, or with seltzer. However, the real Goan thing to do is to distill it two times more to get feni, which hides a mind-altering hit in its 45 percent proof.
Most people prefer to lose their "feni virginity" to the coconut version. But true Goans, and feni lovers, think only the cashew one is the real deal. This is because coconut feni is milder, with not as much of an aroma. You can tell when cashew feni is being distilled from the way its vapors suffuse the neighborhood.
Cashew feni gets its historical credence from the Portuguese, who occupied Goa until 1961. The cashew plant is an Portuguese import, and so is feni. Now feni is all Goan, with barely any mention in Portugal. The book Trade and Finance in Portuguese India (published 1994) reports that feni was considered a remedy for asthma, rheumatism and other maladies initially.
While the Goans celebrate everything from birth to death with their aromatic alcohol, I doubt it is used as a health tonic any more. The only lasting effect of feni is that it stays as part of the drinker's "perfume" for a day. It is hardly the sort of drink you can consume surreptitiously. But with tonic, Sprite, seltzer, apple juice or just a squeeze of lime, feni can become a drink that not only grows on you but makes the day more fun. A shot of feni with ice prepares you for a long day in the water. Any more and it is best to nap on a beach blanket.
With feni's recent GI certification, exports of the drink have gained popularity. Your best bet is to go to a large liquor store and get one of the quirky bottles it comes in, shaped as a cashew fruit, a football (another Goan love), or in a handmade basket to remember the good Goan times you had with your first bottle of feni.