The pursuit of things like food and wine have always been some of life’s most worthwhile moments, whether it be sophisticated presentations of the gourmet or simplistic servings of the most traditional of tastes. Which is perhaps why cultures all around the globe and the communities through which such cultural expression manifests have their own distinct platter comprising of many an ethnic food and drinks, making up a unique culinary tradition, each native to their own. It is within such continuance of the sensations that tingle the taste buds while also being social and cultural markers of identity that there exists a certain class of beverages exclusive to the Asian continent. Though widely interpreted in terms of their composition and flavor and essence within their own distinctive origins, these sips of nativity tend to be more or less similar in essence, with however a wide variety of interpretation as concerns their brewing, making them therefore smack of a taste that is unique yet familiar all the same.
These beverages of pan Asian prominence are fairly common an indulgence of sorts across many pockets of the Indian existence, mostly in the northeastern states of the country even when certain varieties are brewed also in other parts of the subcontinent. What is common among these brews steeped in immense tradition and heritage of their place of nativity, and what still renders them distinct from the other more prominent regional offerings such as Goa’s iconic cashew based feni drink, is that they are rice based wines, alcoholic and intoxicating still in different intensities, mostly produced locally and not yet quite explored therefore in their non commercial presence. But within the particular community and region in which they brew, these local drinks tend to be an inseparable part of the associated culture and heritage, making them therefore not just glasses of intoxication to gulp down but also prominent samples of the continuing tradition and identity.
Fermented and distilled drinks elicited from some variety of rice, these rice wines go by different names in different parts of the country, and even exist as separate identities in each of the states of northeast India. Though a definite marker of region and geography, at least as much as they are identifiers of communities and their cultures, it hasn’t been until now that these essential elements of social life have been accorded their due status, nor have they been promoted and popularised outside the confines of the state of which they stem. But the recent endowing of a Geographical Indication tag to one of these varieties of rice wine seems to be a step in the right direction, which will likely help the brew gain ground on basis of its own distinctive legacy and importance. An integral component of the way of life of the Dimasa people of the state of Assam, Judima is the local wine variant that has been bestowed the GI status, making it the first such traditional drink of the northeast to find its place among the long list of Indian identities with such unique specifications catering to them.
A slightly alcoholic beverage, noted for its distinct sweet flavor and characteristic aroma, Judima takes its name also from the community itself, with Ju meaning wine and Dima referring to it belonging to the Dimasas. A mellow yellow colored traditional preparation that makes use of three different varieties of rice produced locally, the drink is an integral part of the social assertion of the Dimasas while being also as significant a composite element of many a traditional rituals practised by its people. What makes judima even unique a preparation despite its essence as being one of the many rice wines offered by the myriad communities inhabiting the northeastern part of the country is its steeping in a particular variety of rice called the bairing that which being a non fine variety of rice is not used for consumption. Produced exclusively therefore to extract this traditional liquor out of it making for a case unheard of in any other part of the world is the bairing variety of rice that together with a sticky, glutinous red or white colored bora rice variety and the non sticky variety of everyday use as a staple food is what lends Judima its essence. The use of these varieties of rice in differing proportions is what makes the color of judima manifest in a pale yellow or reddish tinge, with a slightly cloudy appearance. Also intricately interwoven into this medley of churnings that sum up the flavor profile of Judima is the properties of a certain indigenous herb called the thembra that steeps the drink in its almost honey like sweetness.
The traditional artisan preparation of the Judima wine begins with rinsing the rice in water to clean it of any impurities after which it is cooked and then left to drain on bamboo mats or those made from banana leaves, thereby letting the rice air dry out as well. With the starter cake Humao that is made with rice flour and the grated bark of the thembra plant introduced at this point in preparation, the process of fermentation is initiated. It is through this process that the rice begins to release its sugary liquid that are transferred into special cones known as Khulu after passing through specific banana leaf-lined bamboo ju-khatais, placed on top of the receptacles that are meant to collect the liquid that spills out from the treated rice. It is this sugary liquid that which is the Judima brew so relished by the Dimasas in all events of their life. Be it weddings or funerals, religious festivals or ceremonies celebrating births, Judima is served commonly either as it is or diluted with water, sipped on as a beverage by itself or drunk along with accompanying meals. Interestingly though, the Judima brew can even be distilled further to obtain instead a sour tasting, more potent alcoholically drink called the Juhan that which however is not as widespread in its use as the mellow and therefore more societally conducive characteristics of Judima. Ready within a weeklong period of attending to its making, the judima wine can then be stored and preserved for really long periods of time.
Prepared mainly by the women of the Dimasa community, this traditional drink of the Judima is so revered an element of life among the people here that it serves also as a prominent rite of passage. It is customary for the father of a newborn to wet the lips of the child with a few drops of the brew in the belief that it will help to keep evil spirits and bad luck at bay. In fact so essentially ingrained is the Judima within the life and culture of the Dimasas that they have even been celebrating a namesake festival in December every year since 2016. Of equal folkloric prominence is the tale of this brew to the Dimasas who live by the tale of a man amongst them once going to work in the fields taking a lunch of rice wrapped in banana leaves along with him. Hanging his meal for the day on a Thembra tree trunk and returning to it after half a day’s work later to partake of the food, the man discovered with delight a sweet liquid flowing out from his rice, possibly due to the juices of the tree having found its way into the meal. Ever since then, it has been the bark of the thembra tree that has come to find use in the brewing of Judima. Apart from lending the brew its characteristic sweetness, it is this incorporation of the plant that makes Judima also somewhat of an elixir steeped in medicinal properties. Believed to cure headaches and insomnia as well as ease the alimentary tract thereby improving digestion is this herb native to the region that together with a host of other plants also essential to the brewing of the native drink is what makes Judima a potent aider of human health as well.
Beneficial for many a kidney ailments as well as supposedly good for the heart, Judima possesses also therapeutic potential in curing various ailments that it derives from the many phytochemicals of the plants that go into its making. With a nutritional profile that boasts of a good amount of proteins and carbohydrates as well as a fairly large range of free amino acids with high antioxidant activity, Judima indeed is more than just a sip of intoxication to lose oneself into the intriguing Dimasa way of life. A muscle relaxant, a mood uplifter and an occasionally commonplace indulgence loaded with the goodness of organic herbs and other ingredients, Judima indeed is a distinct dose of life infused into the existence of the Dimasas in very traditional assertion, making therefore its attainment of the GI status a reason to rejoice and celebrate for the community, with of course a bamboo tube filled sweetness of Judima to raise a toast!