Millet is the main ingredient for chaang but to convert millet into chaang an ingredient called Marcha [yeast inocula/ starter cake] is needed. Marcha helps in the fermentation process to convert cooked millet into chaang.
But how is marcha prepared? Traditionally, marcha has been made by certain families who keep the recipe a closely guarded secret but I met a Lepcha woman from Rey-Mindu village and convinced her to share at least some info. According to her, marcha, the main starter for fermentation is prepared from Rice powder mixed with seven different wild herbs. At present however only three varieties of herbs are available. She contends that marcha prepared from only three varieties of herbs compromises the taste of chaang. This might be the reason why she hardly prepares marcha anymore even for her originals customers spread all over her village and neighbouring areas.
In my search for information regarding marcha, I also met a 55-year-old Limboo man, who has been providing home delivery service of marcha for the past 12 years. Originally a Nepal national, at present the man is based in a village in North Sikkim, near Mangan. He is hesitant to disclose his name or even the village from where he brings the marcha. His area of business meanwhile spreads from Penlong, Pangthang to Marchak in Ranipool. He supplies marcha to households in Burtuk, Sichey, Luing, Perbing, Ranka, Barbing, Dhajey, Lingdum, Rey, Mindu, Reykhola and several other surrounding villages.
He receives his consignment from North Sikkim at Vajra taxi stand. Loads his consignment in a tingzyang [a cylindrical traditional Lepcha basket made of bamboo] and delivers them to all these villages on foot. He says mobile service has made it easier to reach his customers and keep track of orders. He makes a reasonable earning.
Here I would like to highlight few facts. Organically prepared chaang and rakshi have good demand among tourists. In last few tourist festivals, I have seen people enjoying chaang, paying up more than Rs. 100 per dhungro without any hesitation. Whereas, in basti, the maximum cost of a dhungro is Rs. 40. This could be a very good profit-generating business in the tourism sector. Secondly, home-made alcoholic beverages have religious and cultural significance in the villages of Sikkim. For farmers, chaang is almost consumed as a soft drink and is also believed to have nutritious value.
As I mentioned, marcha is the only ingredient needed to prepare organic chaang. In the old Lal Bazaar, during haat days, one entire row used to be covered with marchawalas. Women from Mangshila in North Sikkim, Assam Lingzey, Saureni, Aho, Rey Mindu and various other villages used to sell marcha here. This has now become history. This could also be due to the unavailability of wild herbs needed to prepare good marcha.
It is time for the concerned authorities to come up with some steps to do some research and conserve the remaining varieties of herbs and keep this traditional ingredient alive. I won’t hesitate to state here that marcha be given Georgraphical Indication [GI] registration as done with Sikkim’s large cardamom last month. It is also a fact that if the tradition of making marcha dies in Sikkim, people will be forced to use chemical products like spirit to make chaang as practiced in the plains to make desi daaru. It is of utmost importance to document and encourage the traditional practice of marcha preparation that now survives amongst a few elderly people before it is lost forever.