James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Urge to Go Away, the Urge to Come Back, and the Time to Drink

The Urge to Go Away, the Urge to Come Back, and the Time to Drink

Tongba in West Bengal

You can be perfectly sober and still find it difficult to figure out the mountain drink of tongba. Or rather, how to drink it. Order one and you will be given a giant, hollowed out bamboo “glass” filled to the brim with dark red millets, a giant wooden straw sticking out of the top. And, of course, a giant kettle filled with hot water. Of course.

Had I somehow managed to find this tiny “house bar” in Mansong village, and asked the aunty for a tongba, I don’t think I would have known quite what to do with it. Perhaps I would have just stared out of the window, overlooking these beautifully dark mountain valleys, forever.

Thankfully, I was in the company of friends, locals from Kalimpong who laugh, poke fun of each other (and me), and make you question the value of big city life. They tell me to pour the hot water into the bamboo glass, slowly, right to the brim. And then wait.

The aunty brings a metal plate of freshly steamed pork dumplings and deliciously spicy chickpea chakna The dumplings are juicy, the chakna the ideal level of spice.

A few minutes later, I use the straw to drink in the mildly alcoholic and delicately flavored tongba. The drink is warm, and the warmth moves from my mouth to my stomach. It tastes slightly sour, a bit like a dry wine. I sip until there is nothing more to drink. And then pour some more hot water right to the brim. And wait.

All this while, the conversation never stops, flowing along with our shared fears and ambitions, our differences, and our thoughts on the future of the world. Another round of dumplings arrives, served with a dangerously red chili paste. My friends tell me about life in a small mountain town, the abundance of time, and the sometimes frustrating lack of ambition. About how close-knit their society can be, the pulls and pushes of “belonging” somewhere, the urge to go away, the urge to come back.

I listen, watching the mist float over the mountains outside, and eating those steamed, juicy dumplings. I learn to be judicious with the chili paste; it’s not be taken lightly. I listen some more because the memories and experiences they have gathered are so different from those of my own. Yet, here we are. Together and laughing.

I think how the tongba will keep me warm and energized as I ride back in the darkness. How I will hold onto these moments and savor these memories on the days I am no longer in the mountains.

But right now, the tongba is ready once again. It is time to drink.

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