Chacha (ჭაჭა)

Throughout history, there have been initiation ceremonies where boys would have to overcome difficult challenges and prove themselves as a man. Although western society has largely done away with this practice, I think I found a way to bring it back. I base this on my own personal experience during my first visit to Georgia and my encounter with a specific drink that made Russian vodka seem like water and Jack Daniel's like apple juice. It is called chacha (and no, it is not related to the dance).

That isn't water in those bottles on the right.

That isn't water in those bottles on the right.

Upon my arrival, I started hearing murmurs of this drink. Every foreigner I encountered had a similar story where they were having dinner with local Georgians when someone took out a bottle of this homemade liquid and encouraged everyone to drink and drink. Refusal was not an option and everyone took part together. Toasts were long and intricate, and with each shot, the foreigner gained more respect and admiration. It was as if it was an initiation process to the country and society. But although the stories seemed exciting, each person I spoke to gave me the same warning which was that words have yet to be invented to describe the pain of the hangovers. Nonetheless, I was intrigued.

Later on one evening, I went to a bar and decided to try it out for myself. I walked up to the bartender and order a shot of chacha, to which the he (clearly seeing that I was a foreigner) asked if I was serious. I said yes and, to my surprise, he pulled out a plastic soda bottle that had been refilled with a clear liquid and poured me a shot. Homemade and authentic, I thought as I took the glass. I walked over to a group of newfound friends from earlier in the night, did a toast, then knocked it back expecting a severe burn. To my surprise though, it actually went down fairly smooth, much easier than expected.

Lulled into a false sense of security, I ordered a couple more throughout the night without thinking too much of it. Granted, I's seen several bus and marshrutka drivers pound them back like it was water, so how bad could it be? Even going to bed later on, I still felt alright... but then I woke up the next morning.

Artistic rendition. I assume most 80's hair metal musicians have gone bald by now.

Artistic rendition. I assume most 80's hair metal musicians have gone bald by now.

My body felt like it had been hit by a truck and my ears were ringing as if some 80s hair metal band had been screaming into them throughout the night. I thought my then 24 year old body (this was back in the day) could handle it, but chacha in all its mighty power punished me dearly for my hubris. But if I was going to return to this country and not be 'that foreign guy that cant take his liquor', I realized something. I would need to adapt. So, over the following two years, I slowly incorporated chacha into my system, accepting all toasts when offered and stocking up with a couple water bottles full before before I'd leave for a while. I cannot say I've mastered it (perhaps no one can), but here are some of the things I've learned along the way.

  • Always eat when drinking chacha (hot food, not cold)
  • Do not drink right when you're served. Wait for someone to give a toast first. (Or else you'll have to drink twice)
  • Refusing a toast is not an option. Prepare yourself accordingly.
  • Do not chase down with beer. The two do not settle well together.
  • Always opt for the homemade chacha. It's often much cheaper and sold in plastic water/soda bottles.
  • Some chacha is clear and some is brown. They both have the same effect (at least they did for me)

However, with all that said, do I regret the several times I've had chacha? No. Here's why: for some strange reason, I've felt a sense of accomplishment every time I've taken down a shot of that mystery grape liquor. It feels like a mixture of being initiated into manhood alongside entering a new society. It's hard to put into words, so if you'd like to know better, I recommend you try for yourselves.

 

Kumis (кумыс)

There was an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which Calvin says to Hobbes, "I wonder who was the first person who thought 'I going to pull on those things hanging from a cow and drink what comes out." Well, apparently someone had a similar idea about a horse. The only difference being that this horse person decided to go one step further by saying, "First I will mix it with yeast and leave it out in the sun so that it curdles and ferments. Then, when it's chunky and contains alcohol, I'll drink it." That person acted accordingly and therefore Kumis was invented. (I kid you not, this is a real beverage made from fermented, curdled horse milk.)

Naturally, upon hearing of this, I was both grossed out and intrigued. While I was pretty certain that consuming it would make me sick, part of me just had to know. What does it taste like? Could it be something like cow's milk mixed with vodka? How long will I be able to hold it down before it inevitably comes back up? These were all questions I needed answered, but there was just one problem. I was just a bit (actually very) nervous.

Within my first hour in Kyrgyzstan I had my initial encounter. Right there, on the street corner in the hot sunlight, an older woman sat next to a giant cooler that read 'кумыс - 25 сoм' (Kumis, 25 som), and next to the cooler stood a stack of rather large plastic cups that appeared to have already been used at some point. That meant just about 35 cents for a full glass purchased from a local. It was oh so tempting, but for some reason (mostly the fact that the cooler seemed to have been sitting out all day in the sun without any ice or refrigeration), I ultimately declined, telling myself maybe next time.

But as it turned out, I didn't have to wait long for that next time because right after checking into my hostel, the hostess pulled out a two liter bottle from the fridge and asked us all (me and the other guests) if we wanted some. Again, I was tempted. This time it would be free and clearly more sanitary than the previous opportunity. My two friends Stefan and Gautier took one look and backed away. Stefan declined, admitting he'd already tried it and was unable keep it down. Gautier, the same. The focus was now shifted to me. Do I accept this offer of the country's national drink from a local upon my arrival even if it might make me throw up? Of course I do!

To drink or not to drink?

To drink or not to drink?

I asked for just a mini glass, to which our hostess happily obliged. I then hoisted it up and noticed the uneasy expressions on my friends' faces. The substance was white, thick, and (to my unpleasant surprise), a bit chunky. But I had come this far. There would be no turning back. It was time to face the music, so closing my eyes, I took a sip. Instantly, my taste-buds were flooded with a rather strong, sour dairy-ish sensation, complimented with the aftertaste of hard alcohol and salt. It was very, very salty. It's consistency was thick, like that of a watery milkshake with chunks starting to separate. Summoning my strength to be a good guest, I stoically kept it down and used every ounce of energy to keep my face from going into tight contortions, but I did not ask for another glass.

In retrospect, Kumis was not for me, to say the least. But still, I must honestly admit, I thought it was going to be worse than it was. I'd still take it over Genesee Cream Ale. Therefore, if you ever happen to come across it, I won't tell you not to try it. I'll just say, you've been warned.

(p.s. I also tried camel milk, which was also not particularly delicious, but significantly less sour and easier to drink. FYI)

 

Medovukha (Медовуха)

A drink of legends

When I mention drinks from Russia, can you think of anything besides vodka? (well, maybe if you're a Big Lebowski fan you're thinking of White Russians) And while the stereotypical drink is fairly prevalent and cheap here, I can assure you there is much more to be had. And there is one in particular that stands out, which in my mind is worthy of this first post.

One of the first things to catch me by surprise when first arrived to this country was the abundance of honey and bee-related products. If you happen to find yourself in the country or a small town (or pretty much anywhere besides Moscow and Petersburg), you'll likely see someone on every street corner, usually a babushka, selling an extensive array of honey products. And besides the obvious, this can contain lotions, beeswax candles, bee pollen, and honey beverage containing alcohol called Medovukha (Медовуха).

Containing roughly the same alcohol percentage as beer (5-6%), the drink is made from fermented honey and is, as a result, pretty sweet and goes down very easy. It's almost like hard cider, but better and usually with more added spices. You can find it in stores and supermarkets pretty regularly, but unfortunately those brands are bland and unnecessarily expensive. Your best bet is to find one of these babushka-run honey stands and buy directly from the homemade source. This is what I did during my trip to Suzdal.

At first, I wasn't planning on getting anything because I would later have to transport it on a three hour train ride, but when I saw this one particular babushka selling five different kinds of the drink (each with a unique shade and color), I was drawn into temptation. I had to know more, and when I asked about the differences, she let me sample each one. One had berries, another ginger,a third with some type of flower, and the other two with spiced I'd never heard of before. But there was one thing they did have in common. Their tastes were magical. It was as if she had cast some sort of sorcery on my tastebuds, beckoning them to want more. Now, you may think I'm joking here, but remember how I said I was not going to buy any? Well, I ended up buying not one but two 2-liter bottles (ginger and one mystery spice). And it cost me a grand total of 500 rubles ($8).