For the Batak community in North Sumatra, tuak (palm liquor) is not just for drinking binges. The beverage is mandatory at celebrations, and drinking tuak has become something of a tradition.
Five minutes past midnight a lapo tuak (tuak foodstall) is serving tuak in the Simalingkar area of Medan. A rectangular table was surrounded by five youths. Their eyes were beginning to redden but they weren’t babbling. They were talking about God.
“What makes you convinced Jesus is God?” one of them asked his friends. Before they replied, the discussion was interrupted by our arrival. When we said we wanted to discuss tuak, they warmly welcomed us and invited us to sit down.
“Just guess, how many glasses of tuak have I drunk?” asked a man in a green T-shirt with red eyes. Observing and counting the glasses scattered in front of him, I answered “five”. “More”, he said. Then the talk at the table veered to the traditional drink.
The five youth were ethnic Bataks belonging to different kinship groups. They said their affinity for tuak had been developing over a long period of time; it was during elementary school that they first tasted it.
As elementary school students they tried to drink the liquor stealthily to avoid their parents finding out. But when they grew up, they started to consume tuak regularly with no admonishment, they said.
The alcohol content of tuak varies because the drink is prepared without fixed scientific standards. “If I’m in an unstable condition, even drinking a glass may make me drunk. But when I’m normal, in the sense of mentally and physically healthy, drinking five glasses won’t make me drunk,” said one young man.
“This drink can make me drunk, so can whiskey, but I prefer tuak because it’s more natural. As far as I know, drinking it regularly will make us healthy, excessive drinking is uncouth,” said another youth.
Drinking tuak in Batak country is usually accompanied by a range of snacks. Bataks call such snacks tambul, and they can range from your usual varieties of nuts to crispy fried snake.
In North Sumatra, many regions produce the palm liquor. Torong, a village in Karo regency, is one of them. The village is not far from the town of Berastagi, around 15 minutes in the direction of Lake Lau Kawar.
In Torong, tuak stall owners sell the drink in large quantities, processing the tuak themselves. Nira (sugar palm) juice is the base for tuak, and is derived from palm trees in the forests near local residences.
At 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., paragat — the people who tap palm juice — in Torong enter the woods. They say these hours are the right moments to harvest.
“Around noon, the palm juice will taste sour,” said Marihot Purba, a tuak stall owner and paragat in Torong. Marihot has been making tuak for 12 years, always relying on his self-taught processing skills.
One morning, Marihot invited me to join him to see how palm juice was tapped. Exactly at 8 a.m. we left his stall. No equipment was carried apart from lunch boxes and a water container. Marihot’s dog, named Brown, accompanied us.
We crossed a river and walked along a one-kilometer-long path. The terrain wasn’t difficult, with few ascents. After about 15 minutes’ walk we reached Marihot’s plot. There was a small hut to keep his equipment. He entered the cabin to change clothes.
In harvesting palm juice, paragat believe they should always wear the same clothes, as they think by doing so the palm trees will recognize their owners and more juice will be obtained.
Marihot took the tools needed for tapping from the hut — a matchstick-shaped beater, bamboo containers, sieves and a dagger. He uses the beater to strike the stalks of palm fruits to be cut and the containers to collect the fluid.
Before harvesting, Marihot noticed a palm fruit stalk that could produce juice. He climbed the palm tree with the aid of a bamboo stem. The stalk was struck with the beater, shaken and cut. The cut was smeared with soap to protect it from insects and covered with a tuber leaf. In two weeks, the stalk would again be cut by about 3 centimeters. The cut exuding fluid would later be fitted with a bamboo container to collect the juice that will flow for four months.
Then Marihot moved to another palm tree, this time for harvesting. The bamboo container already filled with fluid was taken down and replaced with an empty one. “It’s quite a lot,” he told me, displaying the contents. The approximately four liters of palm juice in the bamboo tube was then poured into another container through a sieve.
The palm sap harvest was then mixed with raru bark. Three hours later it would be tuak with its sweet flavor, a bit sticky and strong yet refreshing. The alcohol content, sweetness and viscosity depend on the processing and the amount of raru mixed with the liquid.
Tuak lovers believe that the traditional beverage keeps the body warm, and can heal diabetes and remove kidney stones.
In North Sumatra, tuak isn’t just found in lapo tuak, but is served at practically every celebration. So for Bataks, drinking tuak has become a tasty tradition.
— Photos by Andika Bakti