I went to Indonesia for a family reunion in July and celebrated by drinking a local beverage called “Tuak.” I’ve visited the country a few times but this was my/our first Sianipar reunion. I recognized a few faces but hardly knew anyone. I don’t know the language or many of the customs so I felt like the celebration was an opportunity for me to bond with my extended family and experience the culture. This drink was my avenue.
Tuak (palm liquor) is a popular drink among the Batak ethnic group of Northern Sumatra. As we drove around to visit various relatives, I often saw it sold on the side of the road in water bottles and what looked like gas jugs. At the reunion, I had my first drink for this trip. A lady walking around the party was selling water bottles of it for 6000 rupiahs. In US money, that is a little less than 50 cents. When I finished the drink, there were pieces of bark left in the bottle. My cousin, Haposan, told me about how the drink is made. How does it taste? It’s a simple taste, not sweet, not bitter. It’s very much of the eastern “go with the flow” mentality. “I’m chilling in the village with my family,” rather then the western mentality of “where’s the party?”
He explained that it came from the sap (called “nira”) of the Aren palm tree. Someone would climb up the tree and chop off a good branch. Then, they would knock on the branch to extract all the juice. This juice would be mixed with raru bark. After a couple of hours, the mixture fermented into Tuak.
The whole process sounded pretty magical to me. I must admit I was a bit skeptical. The next day we went to his hometown (a village called “Simpang Raya”) and took some pictures so I could get a better understanding. First, we took a picture of the tree. He showed me one located right behind the church next to our grandparents’ grave. His father had some fresh Tuak prepared, this time without the added raru. His sisters made us a dessert using the fruit (called “kolang-kaling”) of the Aren tree. It was used as a sweetener. They toId me the tree was also used to produce sugar. They even said Tuak reduced blood sugar and was a treatment for diabetes. I thought, “What doesn’t this tree do? Is this for real?” The American in me could not imagine this resource not being exploited.
When I got back to the US, I did some more research and it supported everything my family told me. The nira ferments into Tuak within a couple of hours. However, it would sour and taste like vinegar if it sat too long. The raru was added to improve the fermentation rate, prevent frothing, and make it keep longer. I found a studies that supported the effectiveness of raru as an anti-diabetic. This palm liquor is popular in a lot of other cultures in Africa and Asia and is known by different names. Despite that popularity, I have seen no indication of it being available in the US. I guess I’ll have to wait for my next trip. Here’s to my family and to indigenous cultures controlling their resources.