Urrak: an insider’s guide to Goa’s other favourite drink | Condé Nast Traveller India | India


Summer afternoons are balmy at best in India’s sunshine state. As I drive from Sangolda village towards Panaji, Goa’s capital city, I decide to beat the heat with a quick stopover for a gelato at the O’ Mio gelateria at Porvorim. Little do I know that there is a surprise in store. Apart from local flavours like solkadhi, kokum and serradura (a Portuguese-style pudding with crushed biscuits), there is a secret sorbet that isn’t listed on the menu and it is made of urrak. Off-limits for those below the legal drinking age, this is an option that is reserved for those in the know. 

As a conservative Mangalorean teetotaller who only enjoys the occasional peg forced out of social compulsion, I’ve always found the neighbouring Goan consumption of alcohol relentless. And urrak, a local drink distilled from fermented cashew apples, with its strong aromas and pungent palatability—is something that has definitely not been my tipple of choice. 

local drink in Goa
The urrak sorbet at O’Mio gelataria
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However, as an experimental food writer, my personal reservations must be kept aside. I am further egged on by the mocking of my friend who is from these parts into giving the sorbet a try. Unlike the spirit, the sorbet’s aroma is less pronounced— juicy cashew fruit pulp peppered with specks of paprika and tangy lemon. I’m instantly bowled over. This one fast becomes my ‘flavour of the month’ as I parcel an entire tub of urrak sorbet to enjoy that evening. 

Bhingta is a crude word in Konkani that loosely translates as peanut—an inside joke Goans sometimes use for outsiders and their superficial understanding of local customs. Later that evening, I stop for some craft cocktails at [email protected], where Goan chef and owner Pablo Luis de Miranda replicates the local taverna ambience for a more cosmopolitan audience. He rolls his eyes at my boring order and places a bottle of mineral water refilled with urrak on my table instead. The urrak is discreetly marked on the menu as ‘Open Beverage’. 

He jibes with me saying, “You bhingtas don’t know enough about urrak to appreciate it. I have taken countless trips to cashew farms to pick cashew apples and seen all the love, time and effort that goes into preparing even the smallest batch.” 

He explains that its high quality and short shelf life as well as its seasonal appeal made even more precious by its short shelf life. He says that the urrak loses its fruitiness over the course of a few weeks as sedimentation starts. “For many people, the idea of best quality spirits would include famous single malts of the world and so on. In Goa, Urrak is a matter of local pride, just like Mezcal is for Mexico and Sake for Japan.” 

He ends this lesson on urrak with a drink. 

He rims a highball glass with coarse salt, pours in a generous peg of urrak topped with soda, dunks in a chilli and squeezes a lemon wedge. Relinquishing my snobbishness, I swallow it down in a few gulps and revel in the flavours. 

A NECTAR NAMED NIRO

Urrak is the first distillation from cashew apple juice that is fermented into alcohol. This is sold only in April and May and for most Goan youth, guzzling it down marks a rite of passage into adulthood. 

But before urrak there is niro, or slow-pressed cashew apple juice that has a short shelf life of just a few hours, much like palm toddy. Niro is sold in reused mineral water bottles at the Mapusa and Margao markets for as little as Rs100 a litre, but the contents are sometimes adulterated with dubious preservatives. Panaji’s oldest bakery, Mr. Baker 1922, had the bright idea of bottling niro under strict hygiene standards, packaging and bottling it, much like the bottled feni that is available across stores today. 

local drink in Goa
Bottles of ‘Niro’ by Mr. Baker 1922. Niro is the last press of the cashew fruit and has a short shelf life

Nathan Fernandez, the fourth generation poder—Konkani for baker—of the century-old bakery offers me a bottle with shrimp rissóis for breakfast and explains, “Niro is the sweetest, last press of the cashew fruit. The ripe fruit can only be collected from the orchard floor, not plucked from trees as per the law of the land, and then de-seeded.”

While the seeds are sold as cashew nuts, the fruit pulp that remains is mostly squeezed of all its juice. It is collected, tied up and a heavy stone is placed on top of it. This allows a nice and long slow-press of the remaining pulp. What trickles out is clear, sweet cashew nectar with very little tannins. “This summer elixir is available for about six to seven weeks between March and April in Goa,” he says. The cashew nectar is cooling, tastes fruity yet tannic. I’m disappointed that neither O’Mio’s sorbet nor Mr. Baker 1922’s finer version of niro will be available beyond a few weeks. Niro has a very short shelf life of about 36 hours and must be stored at 8-10 degrees Celsius. If left at room temperature, the natural yeasts work on the sugar and produce CO2 and alcohol which ferments into—you guessed it—urrak.

Urrak production is a largely unorganised sector: many families make their own urrak, much like homemade wine, but selling it commercially is still considered illegal, so consider yourself lucky if a Goan invites you to perch on his balcão or balcony for a peg. Hinterland villages like Valpoi and Pernem have their own licenced distilleries so the best place to enjoy the brew would be at a local taverna or dive bar. 

ONE FRUIT MANY SPIRITS

Early next afternoon, as most Goans turn in for their susegaad, Hansel Vaz, the owner of Cazulo feni who hails from Goa’s ‘first family of feni,’ invites me to gather succulent cashew apples with his cazkars or cashew pickers. Dotting infinite orchards are robust fruit in brilliant hues of rouge, vermillion and tangerine, complementing the sultry sun. Harvested cashew apples whose nuts have been twisted off are stomped by foot, until niro or the first-press trickles out. The niro is meticulously gathered in terracotta pots and buried in the orchard for three days and left to ferment into urrak.

local drink in Goa
Cazkars or cashew pickers sorting through a harvest of cashew apples

Urrak’s distillation produces cazulo and finally the aged spirit that is feni. While wine is aged in wooden barrels, urrak is rested in vintage gigantic glass-blown bottles called garrafãoes. “Urrak works well as a refreshing summer cooler unlike brandy or whiskey that are heaty,” Vaz explains. Goan etiquette dictates that you may ask to taste urrak at a taverna before you decide to buy it. At a distillery, you sample multiple vats before making a purchase. “Unlike most spirits, urrak doesn’t take itself seriously. It is fun and frivolous,” he laughs.

UPSCALING URRAK

As international bartenders migrate to Goa and call it their home, their experimentation with urrak in the last five years has sparked their imagination to temper down the spirit with intriguing ingredients that also cater to tourists, and helps them appreciate this very acquired taste. Nerul’s Lazy Goose blends an urrak base with kokum crush and Limca, rock salt and crushed cumin sprinkled on top. Black Sheep Bistro’s Theek Mirsang mixes urrak with fruit pulp and fresh jalapenos. Favela’s Mr. Bartender Jungle Juice cocktail spruces the traditional urrak brew with limca, soda, salt, limes and chillies with lots of curry leaves. Burmese eatery Zwé’s Laukhu Urrack sweetens their cocktail with orange and lime juice. 

local drink in Goa
An urrak cocktail at Favela’s in Goa

Chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE worked at Sinquerim beach’s Taj Aguada in the 80s before moving to the United Kingdom in 1991. Cyrus has been knighted by the Queen of England, for all that he has done to popularise Indian cuisine for a foreign market. An expert on food history, the veteran chef raises the question as to how much India would earn in foreign exchange if we standardised the distillation of urrak into the organised sector, bottled it and exported it as an FMCG product. Over a Zoom call, he chuckles in conclusion, “I definitely wouldn’t give my urrak freely especially if it came from a great source. Ever since I left India, I hoped that someone, someday would import urrak. But I imagine it’s too precious for Goans to give up for export!”



Updated: April 5, 2021 — 11:44 am

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