Mahua, a liquor made from mahua tree, will soon be sold as ‘heritage liquor’ in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said Monday that the government will soon have a new excise policy in place that will enable tribals in the state to brew liquor from the mahua tree flowers in the traditional way and even sell it.
For the uninitiated, mahua is the madhuca longifolia tropical tree, which is found largely in the central and north Indian forests. It has, for many years, earned and maintained the reputation of yielding liquor and intoxicating substances that are unique to this country. As such, legalising it is a significant decision, which will now ensure more outreach and cultural and culinary interest.
We reached out to some experts to understand what they think of this decision. Sangeeta Khanna, a nutrition and culinary consultant, who teaches food design with a focus on sustainable food systems, said until four decades ago, mahua was very much a part of the food system, especially for those people who were dependent on forests. “Mainly the tribal and other rural communities. Liquor, of course, was part of the culture and it still is, but they mostly consumed the flowers and the fruits, and even the seeds were used to make oil — a good quality cold-pressed oil,” she said.
It’s the flowering season of #Mahua, a favourite among #adivasis..
The flowers are among the best natural hydration supplements during #summer treks in #forests..
Don’t forget to #taste them when you happen to come across..#Fieldwork pic.twitter.com/ScwINrsfN8
— Anand Reddy, IFS (@AnandReddyYellu) April 7, 2021
Khanna explained over the years, with the availability of similar products in the markets, the dependence on the mahua tree and the consumption of its products decreased, too.
“Mahua was also used for medicinal purposes; now it has only been reduced to alcohol brewing. In the next few years, however, it can get the status of a good-quality mahua wine in India. But right now, tribals do not disclose they brew liquor, owing to the negative connotation attached to it. It is no secret that the brewing happened anyway, but over the years, the traditional usage of the tree got lost,” she remarked.
Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist and culinary anthropologist said it was “about time” that liquor brewing was legalised. “[The brewing] has probably been done for the last thousand years by these peoples. Their rights were trampled upon in the colonial era, to the extent that mahua trees were decimated, because it was considered puritanically wrong to consume alcohol. Mahua is technically the only flower, which is fermented for alcohol. This makes it a unique product — one that needs a GI tag. This is such an amazing alcohol wealth that we have in our country that is not celebrated.”
#mahua Tree of life of tribal India. Treasure of multiple medicinal properties.#NativeTree #MahuaTree #madhyapradesh #tribal #forest #mahuwa pic.twitter.com/BZTuS9sIJ3
— wild & free (@wild_n_free007) April 8, 2021
According to Dalal, there needs to be a regulation in place, along with “going beyond the tribals and allowing others also to do the same thing”. “If it is exclusively tribal, then they need to figure out how to leverage it. There have been mahua festivals for years — it is eaten, its oil is consumed, the tree is virtually worshipped. What is incredible is the fact that mahua flowers are never plucked from trees. They are always only collected when they fall. It is a sustainable way in which mahua has been consumed by the tribals, and there needs to be a network to support them,” he told this outlet.
There are many Indian states where the mahua tree is found and grown. It is adaptable to arid environments and seen in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, some parts of Telangana, Kerala, Gujarat, West Bengal and even Tamil Nadu.
Indian academic, food critic and historian Pushpesh Pant said legalising mahua does not make a difference because the tribals have been brewing it regardless, and that, too, of good quality. “Wherever there is ban, there is illicit liquor, death and misery. This legalisation of an indigenous thing is a bit of a tamasha.”
Pant explained mahua tree is synonymous with mild intoxication. “The Vedas mention ‘somras‘, but not mahua, because the Vedas were written in the North-West Frontier Province of undivided Punjab where the mahua tree does not grow.”