In common with many other non-Aryan tribes on this Rice-beer frontier, e.g., the Nagas, &c., the Kacharis of Darrang habitually consume large quantities of what is usually known as rice-beer (Zu, Zau). It can hardly be said to be a beverage in daily use, for it is only prepared when specially wanted for immediate consumption. An essential ingredient in the preparation of this most popular form of refreshment is the condiment known as emao which Is usually composed of at least three, and sometimes four, distinct elements. To a definite proportion of husked rice is added (1) the jack-tree leaf and (2) that of the jungle plant known as bhetai, and in some cases the poison fern, though this last-mentioned does not seem to be really necessary. All these ingredients are vigorously pounded together into a powder, which is then passed through a very fine sieve, at least once and sometimes twice. The powder so prepared is then mixed with water so as to make a more or less tenacious paste, and this again is divided into portions sufficient to form solid discs, about three inches in diameter, and one inch thick in the centre, with thin edges. These discs are sprinkled freely with powder from similar discs of some weeks standing, and are for a short time kept covered up in rice-straw. They are then placed on a bamboo platform inside the house for some four days, and are afterwards exposed freely to the hot sun for another four or five days, so as to become thoroughly dry. Finally they find their way into an earthenware water vessel, which is kept suspended at a distance of several feet over the fireplace though they would seem to need no direct exposure to the action of fire-heat; and here they remain until required for use.
As mentioned above, rice-beer is not used as a daily beverage, but is prepared as required, especially for use at marriages, funerals, harvest homes and other occasions that break the monotony of village life. A common method of preparation is as follows : A quantity of selected rice, about 3 or 4 seers, is carefully boiled in an iron or brass cooking vessel, the contents of which are then spread out on a bamboo mat and allowed to become cold. Two cakes of the emao described above are then broken up into powder, which is carefully mixed with the boiled rice; and the whole is then stored in a thoroughly dry earthenware vessel (kalas). This vessel with its contents is then placed upon a platform some five feet high over a slow fire, in which position it is allowed to remain for some three or four days, the mouth of the vessel remaining open for the first day or two, though it is afterwards covered. It only then remains to add water ad libitum, and to pour out the beer, after well shaking the vessel, through a rude straining apparatus composed of rice-straw. It is said that the direct action of fire is not really needed in the preparation of this beer and that exposure to the sun is sufficient for the purpose, though the application of fire undoubtedly quickens the process. Rice prepared in this way may be kept in the earthenware vessel for six or twelve months, a fresh supply of boiled rice and condiment (emao) being added to the old from time to time; but the beer is rarely kept in this way for any very prolonged period, though its quality is said to be improved by such keeping.
It may perhaps be added that the beverage so prepared would seem to be a thoroughly wholesome or at least a comparatively harmless one. Very large quantities are, to the writer’s knowledge, sometimes consumed at a sitting, the consumer’s brain apparently remaining wholly unaffected thereby. There is, however, a far less innocent beverage, commonly known as phatika, prepared from this rice-beer by a process of distillation. This is a raw fiery spirit, somewhat resembling in taste the crudest possible whisky; and its use might very fittingly be put under severe restrictions by taxation or otherwise, with results most beneficial to the physical, mental and moral well-being of this very interesting race.