Toddy tapping or a circus act?

by Indika Weerasinghe
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If you see a tightrope walker doing a balancing act from coconut tree to another along the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, do not be confused. This is the art and skill of toddy tapping which has been passed down the ages to the present times.

It would be an amazing sight to watch a toddy tapper engaging in this life threatening balancing act crossing from coconut tree to another on two ropes which are tied together linking the trees and acting as bridges. Ironically the tappers find it more convenient to tightrope walk than climb each individual tree and down after tapping the toddy. Usually the tapper process up to 10 or 15 trees at a stretch, while climbing up and down with help of steps made with coconut husks which are tied on the trunks of the first and the last trees. This activity had originated from Cochin in the State of Kerala in South India by the people called “Kochchis”. Apparently in Kerala, this practice is a lot more popular than it is in Sri Lanka.

THE PROCESS OF TODDY TAPPING

toddy tapping
Scraping the coconut flower

Once the tapper reaches the top of a coconut tree, where the branches meet, he will start the extraction of toddy off the coconut flower by gently beating or “tapping” with a led filled thigh bone of a cow. this beating will last upto 2 to 3 minuttes. Next he will shave the tip of the flower with a specially made knife. This causes the production of the nectar (toddy) which usually amounts to half a liter per day per flower. The nectar is a milky colored liquid substance that drips from the flower into a claypot which is skillfully hung on the flower.

Coconut treacle with buffalo curd
Treacle with buffalo curd- a typical Sri Lanka dessert

The liquid if collected immediately is very sweet and when boiled on a slow stove produces treacle which tastes and looks like honey. When further boiled the treacle will turn into jaggery which could looks like milk toffees. A lot of Sri Lankan desserts are made by using treacle and jaggery as ingredients. Once of these specialties is Wattalappam – a famous dessert among the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.

Raw toddy collected in wooden barrels

Moving on to the intoxicating stage, – if the extracted nectar is kept for a period of 12 to 18 hours, then natural fermentation takes place mild alcohol which we know as toddy id produced. This tastes like Japanese Sake. When the raw toddy is distilled you could get arrack , which is commercially produced bottled and branded by distilleries companies and drunk like whiskey or brandy. Arrack is a very popluar local brew and used frequently in cocktails in the local bars.

Should the toddy be kept for a period of 36 to 48 hours without being distilled, then natural fermentation  converts it to natural vinegar. 

Types of Sri Lankan toddy

However, the best and the more healthy type of toddy is extracted through a similar process from the fishtail palm (or “Kitul” palm) in the mid elevations of Sri Lanka at heights ranging from 150 meters to 1200 meters above sea level.  The toddy, treacle, jaggery and even arrack are of a far more superior quality and taste than the produces from the coconut extracts. Further in the northern ans eastern provinces where the Palmyrah trees grow in abundance the same processes are implemented. although the fishtail palm products would still be better the Palymayrah arrack is better sought after as a local brew.

Issues faced by toddy tappers

Seasonality of the industry is the main issue that these toddy tappers face. During the off season they have to find alternate work such as home gardening or other laborer’s work to keep their income steady. The hazards involved in the process of toddy tapping is also a major different to continue in this trade together with the social stigma of being labeled as a menial toddy tapper discourages them to continue this trade and seek more prestigious employment. So unlike days gone by, we see so few of these toddy tappers doing this balancing act these days.

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