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A spirit that’s nothing short of ‘Feni’ tastic

A spirit that’s nothing short of ‘Feni’ tastic

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14 Jan 2018 No comment 34 hits

Intoxicant, medicine, offering for the gods and supernatural spirits, rumoured aphrodisiac...Goa's quintessential feni straddles all these worlds. Time may have caused its supplementary uses to fade from collective memory, but there are still a few who diligently continue to tap the brew's medicinal and 'spirit'ual benefits.
As an alcoholic beverage, feni (cashew or palm) requires no introduction. Popularly referred to as 'soro' or 'kop' in local lingo, feni boasts of a standing in a dozen international markets. And, if among other things, Goa has come to be synonymous with feni, it has its Portuguese colonisers to thank.

"Feni happened because of the missionaries and soldiers," says Mumbai-based corporate chef Zubin D'Souza, who opines that since it was the Portuguese who brought the cashew apple to Goa from Brazil, it is "quite possible feni is not a Goan invention".

The point is partially corroborated by Biula V Pereira in the book, 'One for the Road'. The associate professor of sociology writes that while palm feni predates cashew feni, the process of distilling alcohol from the toddy was taught to Goans by the missionaries.

"Even before the arrival of the Portuguese, certain traditions and rituals demanded the use of feni. However, the early Goans drank and used fermented toddy," Pereira says. The uses of palm feni were limited. Besides being used as a preservative in cooking and appeasing spiritual and symbolic deities, its scope did not extend to medicinal aspects. That fell more in the league of cashew feni, says agriculturist Minguel Braganza.

And indeed, the medicinal uses of cashew feni are mind-boggling. The brew can be used to treat anything, right from the common cold to orthopedic problems and rheumatism, once even finding use in childbirth. "The midwife would ensure a bottle of feni was always at hand to treat the umbilical cord," says Pereira, adding that the instrument used to cut the cord was kept dipped in feni. "Post-delivery, the woman would be advised to use some feni on the homemade sanitary pad. And in a little-known practice, the 'voiginneo' (midwives) would blow a mouthful of feni on the vagina after delivery, as this was believed to help in healing the lacerations sustained during childbirth," she writes in the book.

Founder president of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, Mac Vaz, explains that the reason behind feni's wide medicinal use was the lack of western medicines during a greater part of the Portuguese rule. "Natives wholly depended on natural cures. Skepticism to accept modern options, cost and lack of trained doctors in rural areas were other reasons," he says.

While a few medicinal uses of feni persist till date, the most exotic use of feni by far is seen in the spiritual traditions of the land. It is not unusual to find Goans appeasing the local guardian spirit - known to keep a benevolent and protective eye on 'his area' - with offerings of 'soro'.

The spirit is known by many names; the Hindus call him, 'devchar', 'zageavoillo', and the Catholics call him 'dhoni', 'gaunkar'. However, regardless of what he is called, the devchar's blessing has to be invoked if everything is to run smoothly at a festival or function. Sowing? Harvesting? The devchar has to be offered his favourite drink.

This belief is extrapolated to cover all occasions: Marriage, birth, death and every thing in between.

Even in this sea of appeasements, a few rituals manage to stand out, such as the unique Dussehra celebrations witnessed at the Ravalnath and Betal temples of Shiroda, and the Sidhanath Prassan temple of Balli. At Shiroda, a community offering of feni is made by the villagers to Lord Ravalnath and Betal, but it is the Balli temple celebration that begs the adjective, 'bizarre'.

Pereira writes, "Dussehra celebrations at the temple of Sidhanath Prassan see feni compulsorily being offered to all present as 'prasad'. The first round is charged. Thereafter, unlimited feni is made available for free and the remainder is sold." Since, Pereira speculates, all celebrants are male and are bound by a code of secrecy never to reveal the proceedings, one can only imagine the liberties taken during the occasion.

In a deviation from the more common use of feni to please spirit gods, the Shet community of Verna worships goddess Jagdamba - a manifestation of Durga - with feni and nonvegetarian food during the Hindu month of Malund.

As in the manner of most things today, these rituals are on the wane, some extinct. Pereira, however, says that some traditions continue, albeit clandestinely, possibly due to religious pressure (with Catholic priests terming many such observations as pagan) or due to the caste tag attached to these rituals.

Fortunately, when it comes to culinary uses, the employment of feni as tenderiser and preservative continues, and even finds adaptations by foreign cultures. "I knew a German lady who used feni as a preservative in jams she prepared," says Braganza.

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