Enchanting    
 

Myanmar

 

A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002

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Toddy Palms

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 process.

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 fruits, 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 look 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, as the 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 the 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.

 

Enchanting

Myanmar

A Guide to Tourism Destination and Beyond

Vol. 2

No.1

October-December 2002