Sunday, 25 August 2013

Spirit of the harvest

Made from rice: Augustus Sapen stirring a container of tuak — with bags of ragi beside it — at the Tuak Education and Appreciation workshop.

Made from rice: Augustus Sapen stirring a container of tuak — with bags of ragi beside it — at the Tuak Education and Appreciation workshop.

Our columnist turns his taste buds back home with a look at traditional Sarawakian brew tuak.

WHAT is tuak?

“Tuak is tuak when it is made in Sarawak by Sarawakians. That’s basically it!” said Augustus Sapen with a laugh.

According to Augustus, organiser of the upcoming Spirits of the Harvest event, “tuak” is a general term Sarawakians use to refer to a brewed drink.

“Sarawakians make alcoholic brews from apples and pineapples as well, and they also call it tuak,” he explained.

All the same, the tuak that most non-Sarawakians would be more familiar with is usually made from rice.

“Most of the tuak out there is made from either normal or glutinous rice. The elders at the longhouses would always say the only good tuak is glutinous rice, which gives you a deeper flavour and has a caramel taste when aged,” Augustus said at the recent Tuak Education and Appreciation (TEA) event at Leonardo’s in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, held to promote the tuak-making competition at the annual Spirits Of The Harvest (SOTH) event. The theme of this year’s SOTH is Return Of The Headhunters, and it will be held on Aug 31 at Awana Longhouse Genting.

The SOTH website describes tuak as “a traditional alcohol drink made from the fermentation of rice (usually glutinous rice) using yeast and enzymes that are naturally available in ragi, which is the culture host for the accumulation of yeast and enzymes that are responsible in brewing tuak”.

According to Augustus, different regions in Sarawak would have different ragi, all of which will impart its own unique characteristics to the final product.

The enzymes in the ragi serve to break the starch in the rice into sugar (kind of like the koji the Japanese use to make sake), and the yeast subsequently converts the sugar into alcohol, which is the fermentation process.

As part of the TEA event, Augustus did a quick demonstration of how to make your own tuak, and also brought along some of his own homemade tuak for us to sample.

For now, the tuak-making process seems rather rudimentary to say the least, but that’s what it is right now, until someone takes the initiative to develop it properly and maybe commercialise it (as far as I know, there is only one commercial tuak in the market right now, called Copial Tuak).

That’s what Augustus is hoping to achieve via the Spirits of the Harvest event, and the tuak-making competition. Since getting involved with the Sarawak Heritage Association in 2007, he has been passionate about learning more about Sarawakian native cultures, of which tuak-making has obviously been a big part.

“Tuak is part of Sarawak’s culture. My mother used to make tuak as well, but I only started a few years ago,” he said.

Augustus organised his first tuak-making competition in 2012, which was a success, and this year he hopes to continue to create more awareness about the traditional brew.

“I want more people to appreciate the drink, and to make their own. You are not allowed to sell your tuak, but you can still make your own.

I have to admit, I was initially sceptical about featuring tuak in this column. Although it is a traditional Sarawakian alcoholic beverage that is an integral part of the culture of almost all Dayak natives of Sarawak, there has also been quite a lot of bad press about it, such as the problem of tuak-related alcoholism.

However, speaking with the self-styled “tuak enthusiast” Augustus helped to make the decision to feature tuak (and hopefully other local spirits like toddy and lihing in the future) easier. As he writes in the SOTH website, “Tuak is not the problem ... alcoholism is. Part of the purpose of this (tuak) competition is to promote the culture of slowly enjoying tuak instead of gulping everything in ‘one go’, as the natives call it.

While he admits that tuak does have a bad reputation, he reckons the problem with tuak is that there has not been enough research or effort put into documenting a proper way to make a consistently good quality and safe product, something he hopes to be able to do in the future.

“I really hope that one day, there will come a time when tuak is appreciated like fine wines or other spirits,” he concluded.

For more information about the Spirits of the Harvest event and tuak-making competition, visit Michael Cheang thinks it’s about time he started learning more about local spirits and brews. Readers can write to

Tags / Keywords: Opinion , Lifestyle , Tipsy Turvy , tuak , alcohol , Sarawak

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