The summer special drink made of cashews or coconut – the feni is what gives Goan spirits a face and an identity. A distilled version of its cousin, the urak, learn about the interesting journey of how this liquor came to be.
A traditional spirit from the state of Goa, the fermented and distilled feni has a unique, strong aroma and taste and is often consumed neat – with a lemony mixer and sliced green chilli, in cocktails or as a base for many traditional Goan drinks. The pungent liquor that is now synonymous with Goa’s culture traces its journey back to the time when famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama landed on Indian shores in 1498. Since Goa was the first territory that the Portuguese called home in Asia, as a way of asserting control over the spice trade, they also brought with them plenty of foods – including potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, chillies and guavas.
What they also brought along with them into the country was cashew plants that weren’t meant for consumption – but as a way of experimentation where they were planted on slopes that would endure soil erosion. The ongoing issue – courtesy of the heavy monsoon and the coastline, was reduced considerably after the trees begun to take root, and flourish better in the beach state than its native country of Brazil. When Goan locals figured out that the cashew apples need not be discarded and instead, can be fermented to make liquor, three kinds of drinks were derived as a result.
The first distillation – urak – is a mild drink with a smooth, fermented flavour, that contains 10-15% alcohol. The second drink, a slightly stronger one known as cazulo is followed by a third distillation that contains 45% alcohol – that we all know as feni. Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘phena’ or froth, feni gets its name from the slight frothiness that occurs when a drink is poured into a glass. So popular did the drink become over the years, that this indigenous liquor earned Goa a Geographical Indication (GI) tag. Traditionally enjoyed with a lemon-flavoured soft drink and slit green chilli as a way to offset the pungency with sourness and spice, traditional methods of distilling feni have also become a point of preservation within the state.
Originally fermented in earthen pots that were partially buried below the ground surface – called matheyachi bhaan – original craftsmen who followed the traditional method would simply tap the surface of the pot or tell by the surrounding temperature how long a batch would typically take to reach the desired levels of fermentation. Today, feni is not only made with cashew apples, feni is also made by distilling the toddy that is collected from the sap of coconut palm flowers.