This musing was first published in Flavours magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:
Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Kuala Lumpur and went for my very first visit to Sabah to introduce myself to my in-laws? On announcing the master plan to visit the wife’s family’s village, Beatrice jumped out of her chair. “We can organise a Christmas party for all the people in my village.” “Hang on a minute – How many people are there in your village?” I was almost scared to hear the answer. I mean to say, feeding two or three thousand people had to cost a bundle and on my salary at that time, I will tell you, it was a most daunting thought. “Oh, there are lots” – was not the answer that I was looking for, believe me. “How many is ‘lots’?” I whispered out to her. “About 52,” she replied enthusiastically. “How many?!?” I asked in a shocked manner, expecting 5,200. “52,” repeated Beatrice. Well, I thought this was going to be the cheapest Christmas party I could ever have hoped for. “Although we are short of money at this moment in time, I do believe that we can we can offer to hold a party for the entire population of your village. I will even throw in a couple of cases of Carlsberg for good measure,” I announced, trying to conceal my relief.
Beatrice booked and organised the trip as she always does and off we went. Arriving in Papar, we were greeted with the biggest and heaviest tropical downpour that you could ever imagine, which stirred all the toads back to life and unfortunately, all the mosquitoes too. Being eaten alive is not the most pleasant of experiences and not being able to sleep due to the loud croaking coming from the paddy fields did not help either.
The day of the party was a monumental affair to say the least. People came from miles around carrying potluck food items to place on the table for everyone to enjoy. We worked all day to get everything ready and the time had come to enjoy ourselves. On discovering we had no ice, I offered to get it, so off we drove. The first thought I had was how dark it was getting.
It was a moonless night, there was no lights to illuminate the road and the only way to go was to drive slowly down the narrow path so we did not end up in the hitch. Suddenly, we saw something in the middle of the road and slowed down. I thought it was a water buffalo having a nap before continuing on its journey.
As we approached, we found that it was not a buffalo. Instead, it was one of the villagers lying down motionless. He was not moving an inch and I was worried for the poor guy. “Is he dead?” I asked, petrified. “No,” was her monosyllabic reply. “Then what’s wrong with him?” “Tuak,” Beatrice answered. “Tuak? What is that – a tropical disease or something?” I wondered out loud. “No. It’s tropical liquor made from palm or coconut and he has had too much of it.” “Too much of it? He looks like he has had all of it. It’s a wonder that there is any coconut left, by the looks of him!”
I later nicknamed tuak “Gut Rot” once I had tasted this delicate beverage. I will give you another red-hot tip. You do not want to drink this stuff while smoking – you may end up being blown up to kingdom come! As I stared at the drunken villager, out of the blue came the cavalry in the form of two of his mates. They picked him up and carried him off, having a good laugh as they went. “How strong is that stuff?” I asked Beatrice. “It’s quite strong, but alright if you are used to it. Old man Bob is used to it – he’s been drinking it all his life.” If old man Bob was used to it, what would happen if someone was not used to it and drank it for the first time? We would be rushing him to the intensive care unit to have his stomach pumped… Or maybe even replaced! “What is this stuff made from?” I asked Beatrice. “Tuak can be made from the sap of palm trees or coconut trees but it’s usually made from coconut tree sap. There are others as well, you know.” “Oh yes, well, why don’t you give me a heads up so that I can make sure I avoid the stuff at all costs?” “Well,”
Beatrice started out, there is bahar which is also made from the sap of the palm tree, but is made with a different recipe. And then there is tapai which is made from rice.” Different recipe? Maybe there is a recipe book I could buy and place it on the drinks list in the Farquhar Bar menu in our hotel lobby. I could not help but to ask her the golden question: “Do you like a tipple of this refined alcoholic beverage once in a while?” Beatrice pulled her glasses down to the end of her nose and stared at me over the top of them.
Her impression simply implied the articulate response she was expressing. “Idiot” – would have been the best way to explain her thoughts, but as usual, her manners were way too polite to voice it. When we got back from the shop, it was time to get the party started. I decided to take a quick shower before going down to the dinner table.
I emerged about fifteen minutes later and everyone was sitting around chit chatting and looking at me with looks of anticipation on their faces. “What is going on?” I asked Beatrice. “They are waiting for you to eat first before they start.” I could not believe how polite they were and announced that they should all eat and enjoy themselves.
I dipped my hand into a large bucket of ice and grabbed a bottle of beer. As I turned around to speak to Beatrice, I could not believe the sight before me. There in front of me, was old man Bob! Instead of being hung over for four days like I would have been after having my stomach pumped, he looked as if he had never touched a drop. “Here in Sabah,” he started out, “we like to consume this local beverage called tuak. Have you ever tried it?” “Before I answer that question, let me ask you one – do you have an identical twin?” Beatrice came from nowhere and retorted: “Don’t listen to him Bob – he’s a twit!” I tried to defend myself while looking around for help. “To answer your question Bob, not lately, no,” I mustered. “Well, let’s have a shot together. Come, let’s share a glass.” He poured two glasses, walked towards me and handed me the one that was the most full.
Very polite people, I thought… too polite. “Why don’t you have the full glass and I will have the short glass?” We swapped the glasses and I took my first sip. Now I have to tell you something that I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. I have never tasted anything so vile in my entire life. As it passed down my throat and into my stomach, it dissolved every body part in its path like an ice cube in a microwave. “That’s not so bad,” I declared, while wincing badly. As Bob turned around to smile at Beatrice, I quickly poured the balanced of the tuak into the paddy field next to me and pretended as if I had finished it.
I could have sworn that I saw the paddy wilt the instant the tuak touched the water surrounding it. I probably contaminated the whole eco-system of Sabah with that one thoughtless and selfish act. “Wow, look at you,” said Bob. “You have finished it all, but don’t worry, there is plenty more where that came from, I will go and get you a top-up”, “he better not or I will throw up,” I whispered to Beatrice. “Just another drop to make them happy and then you can return to your beer,” she pleaded. “After another drop, I am going to return to my bed. Hopefully, not to a hospital bed!” “Don’t be such a baby!” Beatrice snapped.
This was going to be a long night, I thought to myself. And a much longer day tomorrow, if I kept on drinking this drain cleaner. “Maybe we can place a few bottles in the boot of our car, just in case,” I suggested. “Whatever for?” asked Beatrice. “Just in case we run out of petrol, we can pour it in the tank and keep the car running for a few kilometres until we reach another gas station. “Of course, we would have to keep it in a non-corrosive metal container. You know – the one that does not corrode if it comes in contact with metal-eating acid.” I pointed out that the foul-tasting stuff had indeed been delivered to the village in a screw-top petrol can, which I thought was only appropriate since tuak was also a highly-flammable liquid.
Beatrice rolled her eyes at my latest observation. Bob returned with another couple of glasses and I gingerly sipped on the cloudy substance until it was all but finished, trying to cause as little damage to my insides as possible along the way.
As I was talking to old man Bob, his eyes glazed over and he started to fall backwards. I had downed two glasses of this rocket fuel myself which resulted in me not being as alert as I should have been and thus, was not able to catch him. Bob just fell backwards right into the paddy field thereby squashing the toads. That was the end of my first, and hopefully my last encounter, with East Malaysia’s version of toddy. Although I am sure that these home-grown Malaysian beverages create an enjoyable pastime, I have to say that they are little bit out of my league in strength and I will stick to the conventional beer or red wine.