he year was 2014.
I was returning from Pune after an exam, and I had a stopover at Nagpur. Prior to boarding the bus back home, my host graciously offered to take me to a bar for a few beers.
It was mid-May, which meant a scorching 47 degrees - and I had just reached drinking age. I felt it was in my best interests to say yes.
And I was right.
I didn’t have a lot of experience with bars - I knew they were loud, bustling, and chaotic, in all the right ways.
But this one was entirely the opposite. It was completely empty. If not for the lone chacha (or “uncle”) surveying us from the cash counter, I would never have guessed that it was even open.
Day-drinking isn’t a huge “thing” in India. Most of the people that frequent these watering holes come by in the evenings, after a long day of hard, physical labour. The booze is cheap, the food is edible (what more do you need?), and it’s the perfect place to sit back and crack open a cold one with the boys.
But back to my host - we sat at one of his favourite tables, and he asked me which beer I’d like to have. This was a big moment for me. I wanted to make a good impression - this was his domain after all - so I named the first big brand that came to my mind.
And that split-second decision led to the first of many special moments shared over a bottle of Budweiser.
But before I could take the first sip, he interrupted me.
“Oh, no. You don’t drink like this.” he paused for dramatic effect, gave me a dazzling smile, and asked the server for an entire range of fryums, chips, papad and masala peanuts - and it didn't stop there. He kept going - chilli chicken, tikkas, and reshmi kebabs…
I remember expressing my concern. It really felt like he wouldn’t stop before ordering everything on the menu.
But he shushed me, in a good-natured, and knowing way. Clearly, this was not his first rodeo.
“Beta, bina chakne ke daaru nahi peete!” (We never drink without snacks!”)
And that’s when it hit me.
My dad spent most of the 1990s as a prominent player in the Liquor Industry. He worked in Sales Management for a top tier distillery, which meant that alcohol was never in short supply for us. But more importantly, it was never taboo.
We were taught the concept of responsible drinking quite early. I feel like moderation is better than zealotry, especially when it comes to alcohol.
Drinking, for me, has only ever been a way to relax - loosening the tightness in your shoulders, lowering your guard, and gently shedding your inhibitions, allowing yourself to have a good time.
But much like the flame for a chef, it needs to be kept in careful control. You don't want to end up like this fella:
I think the best way to tackle this stigma is to be head on about it, and my Dad was a champ at it. In all the parties I had been to in the past, I don’t remember a lot of guests ever “losing it” - they certainly got a bit wobbly after a while, but it never reached the point of no return.
But more relevant to our story is the other thing I observed at all of those parties - the fact that the drinks were always accompanied with all kinds of snacks.
It seems like such an innocuous, unimportant detail - of course there would be food. Obvious right?
But that day at the bar, it hit me in a very different way. It inspired me to dig deeper into the larger drinking culture prevalent in India.
Well, not immediately. I was too busy eating Chilli Chicken then. But this entire idea of writing a small piece about India’s drinking culture came to me during the Great Lockdown of 2020 - and that train of thought traces right back to that moment at the bar.
I have wanted to write about it for some time but couldn’t find the right platform to express it. I wanted it to reach the right audience - that just happens to be you - reading this blog post on our brand new website! Hurrah!
Coming to the point at hand (or the pint, if you will), what is it that makes the desi traditions of alcohol consumption stand out from the rest of the world?
We have great alcohol brands we can swear upon, great beers and wine, and both the Single Malt and craft Gin industries are taking the world by storm, along with having a fairly healthy consumer base locally.
So what exactly goes into the process of ”Eat, Drink and Make Merry”?
Just as every dish has its core ingredients, there are some things that have the potential to make a great “Baithak” into one that is memorable for life.
No drinking session in India is complete without the right mood. Whether it is to celebrate or to just relax and wind down, you need to set the mood. A few musicians have attained legendary status in India owing to their near perfect symbiosis with the mood of a baithak. Yes, I’m looking at you, Jagjit Singh.
I personally love throwing dinner parties at home, though my work as a Chef has made that a bit more challenging lately. But certain places do have a certain unmistakeable vibe to them. It’s more about sentiment than logic - the best venue is the one that makes you feel the best, or the one that holds the most meaning to you and your crew. Regardless of where it might be.
For me, that would be any open, secluded space (like a terrace or a patio, or maybe a mountaintop), with smooth music and soft lights. No furniture? No problem. Let's get a chatai and sit on the floor!
Honestly, I am not someone who can drink alone. I just don’t enjoy it. I need at least one more person with me so that it becomes more about us, and less about the booze.
Alcohol for me has only ever been a social catalyst. A little extra something to make a good time better. In my experience, it performs quite badly as a main attraction.
I know people who have carefully built their home bar with the best booze that they can afford, and throw fun parties where everyone can get whatever drink they want. Others just want to spend time with their friends and catch up over a cheap beer or two.
I enjoy both kinds of parties on different occasions. Because for me, it doesn’t depend on the alcohol at all - just the people you share it with.
India is a warm country. We don’t drink alcohol to warm ourselves up in sub-zero temperatures, we drink to cool ourselves down from the sweltering heat and humidity that sticks to us everywhere we go.
For that reason, we rarely drink alcohol neat, except in certain specific cases - high end spirits to enjoy their inherent flavours, and shots by the dozen. Nothing in between.
That’s where mixers come in. They dilute the strength of your drink to a more enjoyable level, and can add both complementary and contrasting flavours to whatever you’re drinking - like tonic and gin!
That being said though, everyone enjoys their liquor in different ways. Despite what the Grandmasters and Overlords and (god forbid) the Connoisseurs say, the best rule has always been to enjoy first, and care about everyone’s opinions later.
Ice, no ice, only two cubes of ice, or one cube and a drop of soda, or no soda only water - no matter who says it, none of these are rules. Find out which one you like best - and always be open to trying something a different way!
This is where our story started, and it’s how I’ve chosen to conclude it.
How can any talk of booze in India be complete without Chakna?
It’s not like we invented it - Spain calls it Tapas, France calls it Hors d'oeuvres, and we know it as good ol’ “snacks”.
But the reason it’s such a ubiquitous concept is quite simple - We like to drink. We want to drink more. But we can’t do that on an empty stomach. But we’re also not in the mood for a whole dinner. We just want to drink…
You see where I’m going with this. “Palate fatigue” may sound like something brewed in a lab, but it’s quite real. You literally get bored drinking if there’s nothing to break the monotony.
You need colours, textures, flavours, crunch, spice, sour, soft and sweet to make things fun for yourself. And a full meal is just too much to commit to.
Also, you really, REALLY don’t want to drink on an empty stomach.
Eating helps you drink more, survive the party longer, and helps prevent you from having a nightmare of a hangover the next morning.
To quote a senior of mine, “you enter a satiated bliss when you are tipsy and full. Not to mention that the party lasts longer and everyone gets to spend more time with everyone.”
God bless him.
But there’s one thing even better than just regular old chakna.
Here are 5 recipes for you to make your own. Trust me. Homemade chakna just hits different.
Try them, mess around with them, and let me know how it goes!
Sticky Wings - Serves 4
1 kg Chicken wings
2 tbsp Garlic Paste
1 tbsp Ginger paste
Salt to taste
3 tbsp Red Chilli Sauce
2 tbsp Tomato Ketchup
2 tbsp Date Syrup/ Brown Sugar/ Grain Sugar
2 Tbsp Fresh Cracked Pepper
3 Tbsp Refined Flour
Oil for frying
1 tbsp Red Chilli Pwd
1- 2 tbsp Coriander pwd
1 tsp Garam Masala
Salt and Pepper to taste
½ Chicken Stock Cube
It is essential that we start off with whole wings. The smaller the pieces, the more flavour will the protein release into the oil. Since we are not making a gravy based dish, this is not needed. Whole wings make better wings!
- Take the wings, wash and pat dry. Add the Ginger and Garlic pastes along with salt and pepper. Keep for 30 mins at room temperature or 2 hours refrigerated. Temperature plays an important role here. Higher temperature makes the protein more accepting of the flavours being introduced. Colder temperature delays the process but importantly provides for a more even and intense flavour profile.
- Sprinkle the spice rub and mix thoroughly, add the refined flour. Refined flour will not only provide a sort of protection from the hot oil, which will keep the wings moist, the starch will bloom when introduced to water, thickening the sauce.
- Now heat up the oil in a Wok or frying pan, I would suggest a pan for the bigger area meaning a bigger batch at a time. It is essential that we don’t let the oil heat up for a longer time, even if it is at a low temperature. Overheated oil makes for bad cholestrol. Also, if you are a regular Non - vegetarian, you could use this oil for other stuff like curries or baking your Parathas.
- Making sure that the pan is not overcrowded, add the wings and fry them till 90% cooked, remove from heat and drain the excess oil. Repeat till all the wings are done.
- Now you have to cut the wings from the joints. Ideally, as soon as they are cut, the wings will release
- Take out the oil leaving about 1 tbsp. Add all the sauces, check for seasoning, keeping in mind salt was already added to the marination and spice rub. Add the sugar, raise up the heat to full and add the wings.
- Keep Tossing and stir frying till all the liquid seems to have absorbed. But, don’t stop here. Keep on tossing, the sugar will caramelize and emulsify with the chilli sauce and ketchup to make it sticky. Some bits and ends will also start burning. That is needed as it will give a nice Charriness to the wings. Make sure, however, to take em out when the time is right!
- Take em out on a nice dish and garnish with whatever you feel like, can be chopped Spring onions or Sesame seeds or Coriander leaves.
And we are done! This is a perfect people pleaser. My preferred pairings would be Bira White, Whitlinger, Mimosas, Cuba Libres and JD Coke.
Crunchy Peanuts with Crispy Corn- Serves 4
This is like an improved version of Masala Peanuts and Crispy Corn. Perfect for Baithaks with conversations as a priority!
200 gm Toasted and Salted Peanuts
200 gm Frozen American Sweet Corn
30 gm Cornflour
1 medium Onion, 1 cm dice
1 green capsicum or a mix of red, green and yellow peppers, 1 cm dice
½ inch piece of ginger, minced or grated
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced or grated.
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 tbsp Red Chilli Flakes
1 tbsp Schezwan Chutney
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp Tomato Ketchup
½ cup Fried Noodles
Oil for frying
- Wash the corn kernels to remove ice crystals.
- Sprinkle all of the cornflour and dust. Deep fry in hot oil till crispy, drain and remove the excess oil.
- heat oil in a wok, add the minced garlic and ginger, saute for 30 seconds in high heat.
- Add the sauces, seasonings and taste, the salt content should be slightly higher than desirable prior to adding the corn and peanuts.
- Add the Peanuts and Corn, toss quickly. Be in a hurry to prevent the corn and peanuts from getting soggy.
- Finish with fried noodles.
As I said earlier, this is perfect for those wind downs with the spouse or a man to man with your buddy. Perfect with any smooth whiskey, from BP to 100 Pipers to Glenlivet 18. Will also work with Manhattans, Mint Juleps and Old Fashioned.
The best Onion Pakoda ever - Serves 4
I love my pakode, especially with my drinks! Having the bros over for La Liga? ISL? Doesn’t matter!
500 gm Medium Round Onions, sliced lengthwise(you can use a mandolin slicer for this)
200 gm Besan, fine grind
7-8 Ajwain Leaves, shredded
1 tsp Ajwain Seeds
1 tbsp Ginger Garlic Paste
3-4 Green Chillies, Finely chopped or Ground to a paste
1 tsp red chilli pwd
Salt to taste
1 tbsp Coarsely ground Coriander Seeds
1 tbsp Kasundi or English Mustard
¼ cup Chopped Coriander and Mint.
Water as required
Oil for Frying.
- In a large bowl, take the dry Besan, add everything except onions, add little water and whisk till it forms up into a sort of lump.
- Now keep on adding little water in batches till you get a sort of a thick Ketchup consistency.
- Now do some exercise by whisking the batter to incorporate air. To test whether the batter is ready, take a glass of water and drop a small dollop of batter in it. If the batter maintains the shape AND floats, the batter is ready. Any other result would mean that batter needs more work.
- Add the already sliced onion to the batter. The salt in the batter immediately will start dehydrating the onions and will water down the batter a bit. That is why we kept the batter on the thicker side initially. We are smart, aren’t we?
- The oil is heated at a medium high temperature, somewhere around 190 degrees, hot but not enough to smoke.
- If you are not into getting your hands dirty, I suggest a couple of tablespoons for this. Drop some dollops of this Onion batter in the hot oil, remembering not to overcrowd the Kadhai.
- We have to fry these babies up till the bright earthy yellow of raw besan cooks up and darkens to more of a Golden-Yellow-Light Brown gradient. Remember that there is something known as residual cooking.
- Take the Pakode out onto a kitchen towel lined plate to drain off excess oil.
- Immediately sprinkle some Chat masala or if you want, cheddar cheese powder.
- Relish with some Mint Chutney!
Three Words: Green. Apple. Vodka
Chicken 69 - serves 4
This pun has been waiting in the shadows for far too long!
500 gm Boneless Chicken Thighs, cut into 1.5 inch pieces.
50 gm Cornflour
10-12 dry red chilies
10-12 Curry leaves
2 tbsp Tamarind Pulp
2 tbsp Tomato Ketchup
1 Tender Coconut, Shaved or Slivered
1 tsp Jaggery or Brown Sugar
1 inch Ginger, Minced
7-8 Cloves garlic, minced
3-4 green Chillies, slit
2 medium Onions, 2 cm dice
2 capsicum, 2 cm dice
½ cup Chopped Coriander.
Mise en Place/Pre-prep - Boil the red chillies for 10 minutes and grind to a fine paste. Heat little oil in a pan, add minced ginger and garlic. Saute for 30 seconds and add Curry leaves. Add the prepared red chilli paste, tamarind pulp, ketchup, jaggery, adjust the seasoning. Simmer till thick.
- Mix cornflour and egg to make a batter. Add chicken.
- Deep Fry chicken till Crisp and golden.
- Heat a bit of oil. Add the prepared 69 sauce and let it start to sizzle.
- Add the onion and capsicum, toss.
- Add the fried chicken and stir fry till all the pieces are coated with the sauce.
- Add the coconut and coriander.
- Serve hot.
Cuba Libre, Fenny, Toddy, Pina Colada, Screwdrivers. White Rum and Tequila.
Bro, Paneer, Bro. - serves 4
500 gm Paneer
100 gm Cornflour
2 tbsp Red Curry Paste
3 tbsp Tomato Ketchup
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup chopped coriander leaves
Oil for grilling
For dip -
3 tbsp peanut butter
½ tbsp red chilli sauce or sriracha
Juice of 2 lemons
- Cut paneer into thick and long cuboids
- Marinate with the red curry paste, ketchup, salt and pepper and 3/4th of the coriander leaves. Leave for a couple of hours.
- Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan. Lightly dust the paneer in dry cornflour and grill on a medium high heat till all sides are crispy.
- For dip, take a small pan, combine all the ingredients and cook till the fat is deprecated. Finish with coriander leaves.
Pairing : Kingfisher Ultra, Bud Magnum, alternatively, Sula Riesling.
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