A few questions about tuak

1) What is tuak and how is it made?

Tuak is a traditional alcohol drink made from the fermentation of rice (usually glutinous rice) using yeast and enzyme which is naturally available in 'ragi'.  Ragi is the culture host for the accumulation of yeast and enzymes which are responsible in brewing tuak.  The enzymes break the starch in the rice into sugar and the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, which is the fermentation process.  Fermentation process also produces carbon dioxide, apart from alcohol.

Ragi is also used in the making of Chinese cooking wine and also tapai, a favourite malay desert.   In the case of tapai, the fermentation  process only takes about two days, beyond which, alcohol starts to build up and the desert is no longer considered halal.

Tuak is normally made in large volumes with the help of sugar mixed with water, often boiled and left to cool before it is added to the fermenting mix of rice and ragi (yeast-enzyme culture mix)

Tuak is very similar, or in some cases exactly the same as home made chinese cooking rice wine.  The alcohol content in tuak varies from 5% to 20% by volume.  Tuak can be dry (not sweet), slightly sweet or very sweet, depending on the amount of sugar used in the fermentation process.  A bad tuak will taste sour, which is the result of other bacteria contaminating the brew, producing lactic acid.

2) How long have you been making tuak since you moved to KL?

I started living in Kl since 2001 after I graduated from USM with an Electronic Engineering Degree. Tuak is one of my favorite drink since my legal age of drinking but I never got the initiative to learn how to make my own.  My mom used to make tuak when I was little but it was too much hassle for her as there was so many myths and taboos one has to follow when making tuak.

As I got involved with Sarawak Heritage Association six years ago in late 2007, my passion and sense of culture became my motivation to learn about Sarawak heritage and culture.   Tuak is part of Sarawak native's culture and being in tune with Sarawak Culture, it was the best motivation to learn the art of making tuak.  Looking for people who practices the art of making tuak was not easy.  It started with knowing one tuak maker early last year, 2012 and a few months after that, I decided that I must start a tuak making competition.  So in April, I launched the promo campaign for our first tuak competition, scheduled for June 2012.  Besides working hard for the success of the competition, I talked to many tuak makers and made several batches of my own throughout 2012 till now.

The best tester has always been myself.  It's alarming to know that I have been drinking tuak every night without fail, except when I am travelling outstation.  But it's all in the name of research and development and it's not as bad as it sounds.  Just over a glass or two each night.

The competition was to be the highlight of a continuous campaign towards the appreciation for tuak and the related culture.  Tuak is so deeply rooted in the Dayak culture as it is used in every rituals especially during the many Gawai celebrations.  Tuak is the drink offered to the spirits, as part of the items used in blessing ceremonies during grand celebrations such as the Harvest Festival.

3) Tell me more about Tuak Education and Appreciation (TEA). What can guests learn from that?

Tuak Education and Appreciation is a platform to preview and promote the grand event which is the Tuak Making competition.  It is part of our Advertising and Promotion campaign to maximize the turnout during the grand event, Spirits Of The Harvest.  In order to attract participants and get the word out, we offer free samples of tuak and the knowledge about the drink, including a demonstration of making tuak.  I will demonstrate the process of making tuak , from cooking the rice down to the harvesting of the alcohol beverage.  This is also appreciated by the younger generations since there is so little known about the art of making tuak, especially in Kuala Lumpur.  There are more than 30,000 Sarawakians scattered in Peninsular Malaysia, most of them working here while some studying in Universities across Malaya.This will be the first ever Tuak Education And Appreciation that I know of and I intend to do a series of talks across Malaysia; everything depends on the response I get on the 4th of August, and the volume of free tuak I can afford of course!

Besides acting as an advertising and promotions channel, it also aims to raise the standard of tuak to the international level, much like Sake of Japan and Korean Rice Wine, Makgeolli.  For your info, we have brought samples of tuak to Japan and the Japanese appreciate the taste and similarities with their Sake.

On a serious note, tuak has accumulated a negative perception, even among the natives of Sarawak themselves, especially some urban natives and the so called religious Christians who regard themselves as more civilized compared to their village relatives.  Some of them are actually ashamed of the problems tuak has brought to their society, i.e. drunkenness and alcoholism.  When I proposed the idea of a tuak competition to Sarawakian facebook users, some of them instantly commented "pesta mabuk" and another objected to the idea of 'celebrating tuak' due to the bad experience it has caused his family. I replied to them, tuak is not the problem, alcoholism is.   Part of the purpose of this competition is to promote the culture of slowly enjoying tuak instead of gulping everything in 'one go', as the natives call it.  I dream of a day when tuak is appreciated like fine wines, sophisticated and full of character and elegance.

4) How is tuak different from other locally made alcohol?

Tuak is quite similar to chinese rice wine but differs in the purpose.  Chinese rice wine is used in cooking while tuak is used in social and ritual events of the Dayak tribes in Borneo.  Tuak is also made in Sabah but known by a different name; it is called Lihing.  Other rice producing countries in Asia also have their own version of Tuak.  In Philippines, they call their rice wine 'Tapuy' while in Thailand it is called Sato.  Sato is sold in 7-Eleven across Thailand at about RM7 a bottle of 750ml and it is a cheap quick fix for many.

Actually, we embrace tuak across cultures.  We will call it tuak if it is an alcoholic drink made using the fermentation process.  Besides rice, some tuak makers also use apples, pineapples, sugar cane press and even grapes!  They call it tuak apple, tuak nenas, tuak tebu and tuak anggur.  Imagination is the limit.  However, tuak made from fruits are not as common as rice tuak.

We also call rice wines made in other cultures as tuak and name them after the country of origin.  For example we enjoy tuak Korea, tuak China, tuak Philipines and tuak Thailand.  I myself have experienced tuak Thailand (Sato), Tuak China, Tuak Jepun (Sake) and Tuak Korea (Makgeolli) in the respective countries of origin and I loved the experience!

5) Which tribe/area/people makes tuak?

Tuak is made by almost all Dayak natives of Sarawak; Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Bisaya, and many more.  Some use the term tuak in general and some have their own terms in their respective language.  It is also worth to note that although the basic ingredients and typical process of tuak making does not differ much across cultures, different tribes have different styles and methods of preparing tuak. Additionally, traditional knowledge of the art of making tuak involves a good deal of taboos and customs and specific behaviors to be observed or else the end product will not turn out well.

 The areas where tuak is produced, span across Sarawak; as long as there are natives in the area, you can be sure there will be tuak served during festivals especially during Gawai Celebration and Christmas.  However, the culture of making tuak is slowly dying out and most of the current generations are either not interested to learn or they feel it is impossible to get it right.  The taboos and restrictions have played their roles here.

In modern terms, much of the taboos and specific behaviors have scientific explanations while some merely denotes good psychological conditions to ensure nothing is left out in the process.  A troubled mind in never a good condition to be in.

Another reason why tuak is becoming rare is the availability of many modern alcohol beverages and in the case of Sarawak, popular brands of beers, wines and liquors are increasingly affordable in the longhouse.  It is not uncommon to see Jack Daniel, Johnie Walker and even Courvoisier served in longhouses and villages across Sarawak.  Beers come in all shapes and sizes during Gawai Festivals.

I have also been told that Sarawak Dayak ministers tend to distance themselves from tuak related events due to the negative impression it has created by those who drink it irresponsibly.

All the limitations and obstacles for a tuak comeback as explained above are now my motivation to raise my tuak glass higher and exclaim 'oohaa...!'  The longer the better.

That's 'cheers' in Iban language, much like 'Yam Seng' and how it is pronounced as a sign of toast, extended play.