The palm wine story – nature’s gift to boozers

Posted on by Pedro Milladino


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Booze. It’s the Devil’s brew, admonished by Mohammed, tempered by the temperancers and much discussed by the 12 steppers. Everyone else in their right mind loves a tipple, and with some of the cheapest (and nastiest) fermented products on this earth, Cambodia is every booze hound’s dream. Along with the weather and the poon, it basically why most expats are here (if they’re honest with themselves). Oh yeah, the temples too, can’t forget about them. Personally, my nightmare is being sober long enough to realize where I am, and with only the vaguest of ideas on how I got here.

‘Cambodia you say? Well I never, fancy that. How long? Really?’

On average, a can of beer costs 50 cents from a street seller, cheap enough for shoe-string backpackers and ELT teachers, but on a sub-$200 a month salary, a ten can a day habit is difficult to sustain for local booze hounds. Never ones to miss a trick, the alcohol industry markets cheap bottles of ‘whisky’ to those who want to get smashed and have no taste buds remaining. Cheaper still, for those on a flip-flop strap budget, are the plastic gallon jars of dark liquid matter with mysterious herbs and bits of wood floating through the murk. Served by the plastic bag, even these concoctions are not good enough for those whom eyesight and liver function is irrelevant. For them there is the lethal distilled rice wine.

I once sampled some of this brew in Battambang. As an experiment, a shot was poured onto an upturned can and lit. It burned and burned and burned with a blue flame. We lit cigarettes from it, mountaineers probably use it in billy-cans to melt snow. Now I’m no scientist, but that shit can’t be good.

Life for the rural populace is indeed tough – there’s no need to go on about the lack of infrastructure, rampant corruption and all that carry on – but while money doesn’t exactly grow on trees, booze does.

Oguro, toddy, tuak, tuba or tuk thnoth chou is popular everywhere on the latitudes around the equator, with the exception of some of the more pious regions of Malaysia and Indonesia. From Columbia to Kiribati, palm wine is God’s own piss to the tropic’s drinkers. All that is needed is a tree, an oversized clamp and some plastic containers on string. Oh, and balls of steel and guts of iron.

Kampong Speu province takes its name from the starfruit, which is odd as starfruits aren’t exactly abundant in the markets. Slightly off topic, but I asked a KSP resident about this. Starfruit is grown as an ornamental plant in some gardens, but as children her siblings were banned from eating it because it would make their father sick, no matter how far away from home he was . . . . Cambodia.

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Kampong Speu is much better known to Khmers as the best province for palm wine. Although the Lexus driving middle classes from the city will turn stubby noses up at the suggestion of the peasant’s tipple when in polite company, the link to the rice fields is no more than a generation or two long, and the lure of the underclass can be too strong, so many will pull over along Highway 4 to quaff a litre or two before heading down to Kampong Som to drink ABC and Johnny Walker on the beach.

There are even specialist ‘beer garden’ establishments- the typical thatched bungalow places selling only palm wine, offering shade and 5 litre containers of tuk thnoth chou for 5000 Riel ($1.25).

The wine ferments within hours and turns into explosive vinegar almost as quickly, so it is best consumed close to source, making it not unheard of but nowhere near as common as other such provincial beverages found in the cities.

Out past the dusty roadside town of Chbar Morn, the provincial capital with a market and not much else going for it save Phnom Penh to the west and Sihanoukville port to the south-east, between the hills, sprouting rice crops and mango orchards overloaded with green fruit lives Mr Sambath, an aficionado of all things palm tree and member of the guild of neak leung tnout. He makes his living as a tapper.

With his demure stature Mr Sambath appears hobbitesque, especially when standing between his two gangly sons, both pushing six feet tall. Child nutrition drives weren’t the top priority in 1970’s Kampong Speu.

Plastic containers on string lie about everywhere. These catching receptacles would once have been made of bamboo, but this is the age of cheap manufacturing. Sambath explains there are two genders of borasssus flabellifer tree growing out the back- male and, unsurprisingly, female (there are no ladyboy palm trees). Both produce flowers from which sweet sap can be taken. The two trees require two slightly different clamping tools, made from hewn wood and tied with twine. The only other tools needed are a sheathed machete and the plastic buckets. The buckets are never cleaned- the white residue inside contains natural yeasts to aid the fermentation process and ensure a more potent brew. The secret ingredient is the bark of the por pel, tree, which stops the juice going sour quickly and prevents it from turning into cloudy acid.

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With the receptacles hanging from a shredded traditional krama scarf tied around Sambath’s waist and the sharpened blade tucked safely into this makeshift utility belt, it’s time to scale the tree. While one can wax lyrical about the palm tree, this vertigo defying feat would not be possible without that other of nature’s gifts to the tropics – bamboo. Long poles have been lashed together and secured against the tree trunk from the base all the way up to the fronds over 10 metres up. Knots and shoots in the bamboo have been cut away to form erratically placed steps and handgrips. With the speed of a surefooted simian, Sambath has scaled the tree and is balancing in the canopy. One misplaced foot up there would mean a long drop down and one hell of a thud. No safety ropes in this game, vertigo sufferers need not apply.

Once up there Sambath slices open the flowers and ties the buckets underneath. Over the coming night and into the next morning a trickle of sweet juice will flow from the dripping slits and, by Mother Nature’s miracle, will be 3-6% ABV by lunchtime. The neak leung tnout is back on the ground as quick as a Phnom Penh street rat. After dipping a communal cup into a bucket of yesterday’s vintage and passing it around, we take a walk around the back of his work shed to have a look at the other side of his cottage industry operation.

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A fire pit has been dug on either side of a scorched mound of earth, with a tunnel connecting them both. In one of the holes Samabath will later build a fire, and on the other place a huge cauldron filled with palm juice. The heat of the blaze passes along the tunnel to heat the liquid at just the right temperature and turn it into a brown sticky, toffee like substance known as s’kor tnout – unrefined palm sugar. This sweet goo is a key ingredient in cavity-inducing Khmer delicacies and can be seen for sale in the markets. If heated again and allowed to crystalize, granulated palm sugar is formed.

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Besides sucrose and brew, this wonderful tree provides an array of other uses for peasants across the equatorial line – from paper to baskets, from housing to foodstuffs, over 800 by some counts, making the borassus flabellifer a very versatile plant indeed. As an official symbol of Cambodia, it top trumps the rest of the forest as State Sanctioned National Tree, and no arty shot of Angkor Wat temple can be taken without the billowing canopy of the sugar palm in the foreground.

Should you ever encounter an old man, riding through Phnom Penh early in the morning with bamboo jugs sloshing by his side, then buy a litre of nature’s bounty. Or better yet, take a break on a road trip to down a glass or two (with a designated driver, of course). Just be warned, never mix palm wine with ice (chilled is okay), for the wise man knows it shall surely lead to stomach cramps and a backdoor brown monsoon tsunami.
Please drink responsibly.

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7 Responses to The palm wine story – nature’s gift to boozers

  1. Uncle Monty's Ghost says:

    Pedro seems a little hazy on natural fermentation and distillation.

    Fermentation can only produce ethyl alcohol, while distillation – if done wrong – produces methyl alcohol, the stuff which blinds, paralyzes and kills many in Russia and India annually.

    On the islands in the Mekong, and elsewhere in Laos, local Laotians produce a distillation called lao-lao without fuss or harming anyone; it is mildly surprising that Laotians, who are not the world’s most sophisticated people when it comes to technology, can achieve something which frequently baffles illegal distillers in countries with hydrogen bombs and space programs.

    In Anthony Burgess’ ‘Malayan Trilogy’ a character who is fond of the locally-fermented toddy observes, “If it wasn’t for the taste and the smell, it’d be a damn fine drink.”

    The Cambodian palm wine, a fermented juice, tastes far better than the Sri Lankan equivalent (which tastes much like dishwater) and is jolly cheap.

    Posh versions are on sale in Siem Reap supermarkets.

    • Snookieboi says:

      Wrong!

      Brewing creates Alcohol including Ehthy and Methyl, as well as other compounds, all which have different boiling points. Distillation is used to free these Alcohols from the crude mash, where they can be collected. Since Methyl Alcohol boils off first, the first 40ml or soi of distillate is rich in it, known as ‘heads’, and often discarded, leaving the Ethyl Alcohol behind, to be collected.
      It is not essential to discard the Methyl Alcohol, however, if it is allowed to combine with the whole of the distillate, because it will be diluted in the same ratio as the starting mash, only more concentrated because of the liberation of water.
      Methyl Alcohol can be minimised by the choice of yeasts used in the brewing process, most deaths attributed to it were from it being sold instead of full spectrum distillate, ie the usually discarded toxic ‘heads’, were sold instead of being dumped.

      • marwood says:

        Snookieboy is right.

        It’s good to see real knowledge on a forum like this.

        On Dong Khon and Don Det, the islands in the Mekong just north of the border with Cambodia, the first bottle-full, or the first two bottles-full, is/are discarded.

        The best longhouse ‘tuak’ in Sarawak tastes like dry sherry and those who makes the best are, quite rightly, highly esteemed locally.

  2. tuktukfish says:

    I love your pieces! Keep up the awesome work!

  3. Uncle Monty's Ghost says:

    Pedro seems to be conflating a distilled beverage, the one that burned so brightly*, with a fermented beverage.

    * It was the vapor which burned brightly, not the juice itself.

  4. peter says:

    I think it’s fairly clear that a distinction is made between distilled Battambang rice wine and fermented palm juice.

    Maybe you lot should lay off the lao-lao.

  5. frogonwood says:

    “Oguro, toddy, tuak, tuba or tuk thnoth chou is popular everywhere on the latitudes around the equator, with the exception of some of the more pious regions of Malaysia and Indonesia.”

    Haha, on the contrary, Indonesia produce a lot of “miras oplosan”, but because it’s muslim-majority country, they do not show it to much. Many people die from drinking selfmade “minimuman keras” (mi-ras), and as a result of banning any ways to get drunk / high, the black market provides shitmade products.

    The Indonesian governement is actually discussing about a ban for beer. Even beer ! Stupid fucks….Except for Bali of course (no beer = no Australians = no money).
    So hey, you can get drunk in Indonesia, just know you might loose your sight, if not your life, by drinking arak or miras oplosan.

    Hati-hati ! (Attention !)

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