Thursday, January 14, 2010

Grog and Sugar

Making my coffee this morning I got to thinking about an afternoon ritual that we used to have many years ago. We worked in the Philippines and we used to come home after work and sit in the shade and drink tuba. It's known by a range of names throughout Asia and the sub-continent - palm toddy, palm wine...In a world where everything appears to be packaged, refrigerated and preserved to deliver a long shelf life, tuba is very ephemeral. Tuba is made from the sap of a palm tree often the coconut, palmyra or nipa palm though the date and other palms are used in various parts of the world. Almost immediately on collection the very sweet sap begins to ferment from natural yeasts living on the plant and probably in the collection containers. This is what makes it so ephemeral. The containers are placed in the morning, as the fermentation proceeds you first get a sweet, low alcohol, slightly frizzante drink which is known as "ladies' tuba". Then, as the day progresses, the alcohol content rises and by the late afternoon you have a sharp tasting, high alcohol drink with a pungent hydrogen sulphide smell from the autolysis of the yeast. This is "mens' tuba" and it's a completely different beast from the pleasant drink of earlier in the day. If it is left alone tuba rapidly becomes vinegar. It is very ephemeral - drink it now or it's gone. So drink it you do!
Our tuba used to be bought at the market each day and drunk that evening. It is refreshing and also an inexpensive way to get loaded if you drink mens' tuba. Much better than the local gin, though San Miguel is a good beer if you want something to slake your thirst after a hot day.
The other interesting product of the palm is palm sugar (pictured at the top). Much of the palm sugar available in Australia comes in hard blocks that are a light honey brown colour. I suspect that much of this "palm sugar" is in fact mixed with cane sugar. These blocks tend to be very hard and shatter when hit with a hammer or crushed with a pestle and mortar.
True palm sugar is dark yellowish brown and has a soft fudgy texture. It often comes in tubular shapes and has a complex caramel flavour. It's easy to cut or grate because it's so soft. Palm sugar is made by boiling down the sap of the palm tree before it begins to ferment. It reportedly has a very low glycaemic index and is rich in nutrients. Palm sugar is also remarkably cheap if you know where to find it.
And that's why I thought about tuba, because I was spooning grated palm sugar into my coffee. It adds a indefinable richness to a cup of strong, black coffee. Pure luxury.

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