By Yin Wyn
Photo by Sonny Nyein
Preparation of earthern pots to collect the toddy juices
The dry, hot plains of Myanmar looked as if only cactus would grow there.
Surprisingly, the tree that can survive in this harsh weather makes up for other
plants too delicate to live in this region. In fact, this tree, the toddy palm,
more than makes up for other trees, for from it alone one can get a diversity of
goods ranging from writing material akin to papyrus to strong lumber to fruits
and flavourings to savory snacks to sweet drinks and strong tipple, and finally
to healthy brown sugar. Oh, lets not forget roofing materials and twine, natural
sieves, folk art objects and toys.
The palm leaves originally used for writing were not from the toddy palm but
another,called the Pay- palm. This tree does not grow as abundantly as the toddy
tree, nor was it cultivated, so the Toddy is a good substitute.
Toddy palms need some rain or moisture from the ground where they grow close to
rivers and streams. But when they have too much, the sap they produce tends to
be diluted and not as sweet as those in the dryer areas.
The best-known product of this palm is the toddy juice, which when fresh is the
sweetest cool drink; when starting to ferment, with a touch of acidity, it's a
bubbly beverage. Finally, it turns into the best vinegar.
Boil it down when it's still sweet and it thickens into a brown sweet paste that
rolled into pellets, harden in the air and become jaggery, the toddy candy. Its
eaten on its own or melted down like chocolate to use with desserts. Sometimes
coconut shreds or chopped plums are added before rolling so that they become
'special' candies. Depending on the area or the cooking process, the jaggery can
be creamy beige or dark and fullflavoured. Toddy juice had been mentioned in
stone inscriptions since the Bagan era, which would be nearly a thousand years
ago; these records state toddy plantations given as gifts. It is a mystery how
anyone came to discover the way to extract the juice, for it is not a simple
Tapping toddy palm juice
There are two types of the toddy palm: the male and the female. The male has :
sprouts that when the tip is cut, drips a sweet juice the whole daylong. A small
earthern pot is hung under it to collect this delicious sap. The female bears
which are round and a shiny dark colour when ripe. Even the stems of the fruits
givesap when slashed with a knife. The palms start bearing fruit and giving sap
when they are about 15 years old, so people say that like good children they
after their parents by earning an income. They produce sap well into their old
age, living longer than humans. It takes great acrobatic skill to farm this
juice. A short
bamboo ladder is tied only high up in the branches; the bare trunk all the way
down has to be grasped with both legs and arms, knife tucked into the waistband,
men move upwards. Once reaching the ladder, it is easier to climb, but then
comes the tricky part of trimming the stalks and removing the pots without
tumbling down. There are never any long ladders kept in the orchard, where the
owner lives, as they fear thieves who would easily climb up and drink every pot
in sight. The toddy farmers also take great pride in how fast they could climb
up, and easier means would make them lose face among the community.
The sap is cooked into jaggery or sold as a sweet drink or heady palm beverage.
The pots are sterilized by piling some dry palm leaves over them and setting
them alight. This fire effectively kills off any germs in the pots. That is the
reason that toddy pots are always black with soot.
The young fruit has three sacs inside full of jelly-like sweet flesh. When this
ripens, the hardened shell of the sac is used to make containers for medicine,
with a stopper carved out of wood. These are exquisite folk art objects.
In the ripe fruit the fibres surrounding the sacs turn soft and yellow. When
mashed and soaked in a little water, it gives a fragrant, yellow natural dye
that is used to both flavour and colour rice cakes.
When ripe fruits are buried in the ground and watered regularly, seedlings come
out in a matter of days. These are useful for replanting, if they were not all
eaten up! For the seedlings, when roasted on embers, are a meaty snack eaten
with salt and a little oil.
The children love to eat this, especially on cold nights when the whole family
gathers around a bon-fire. While they eat, the elders will tell fairy tales or
weave toys and baskets or boxes out of the younger palm leaves. These, more
pliant than the older ones, are also used to make "paper" on which the letters
are scratched with a sharp stylus. When a darker colour dye such as crude oil is
rubbed over this, the letters stand out, and the 'paper' is protected from worms
at the same time.
There was much poetry written in ancient literature about the bliss of drinking
bubbly toddy juice. Even now, it is a treat the country lads still enjoy after a
hard day's work.
In the early morning, before it gets too strong, it is a refreshing drink; some
who can climb the palms go up to the branches to enjoy both a cool breeze and
the cool drink. In some areas of central Myanmar, lofts are conveniently
constructed out of bamboo around the trunk of the palm itself, high enough so
that wives would be unable to drag their men home if they had been sitting up
there too long.
Ancient Myanmar poets have written that no earthly paradise is better than this;
may be they were right.
If he were still alive and touring Myanmar, Omar Khayam would have loved this
tipple as much as any man in the country.