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 Post subject: In Sri Lanka Arrack flows free!
 Post Posted: Sun Jun 25, 2006 1:37 am 
Arrack - Story of a bottle of sweat!

A drink that is as natural as mother nature, arrack is made from the sap of the coconut flower. It is a unique drink, which has its origins embedded in the distant past. Nineteenth-century Ceylon became quite noted for palm toddy arrack. We are the only country in the world to produce an arrack without the use of chemicals whatsoever, making it safer to consume than Scotch!

By Jeremy Muller
@ The Island


Just before dawn, along a palm-lined coast of Sri Lanka, wiry barefooted men, wearing a loincloth, shimmy up the rough trunks of coconut trees. With the precision of tightrope walkers, the tappers climb up to eighty feet to reach the flower buds that they slit with small knives to extract a milky sap called toddy.

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The nectar begins to ferment almost immediately under the hot sun. Distilled in barrels, the toddy becomes arrack, our island’s coarser answer to Scotch and other popular hard liquor.

A drink that is as natural as mother nature, arrack is made from the sap of the coconut flower. It is a unique drink, which has its origins embedded in the distant past. Nineteenth-century Ceylon became quite noted for palm toddy arrack, though we have lost our standing to Indonesia, who now rates numero uno in producing the best arrack.

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Yes, it comes as a surprise to many Sri Lankans who have believed that arrack is an exclusively Sri Lankan drink. Quite the opposite, arrack shares its origins with almost the whole of the eastern world, Africa, and even some parts of Western America! Arrack is called rack, raki and arak in much of the east; mnazi’ in Africa, and araq in the Middle East and Egypt.

In fact, it is in Arabia that arrack claims its origins from. The Arabic ‘araq’ literally means ‘perspiration’. Quite aptly, given that the strong clear liquor was made from raisins and sweat! The idea for the conservation of water by using body fluids came from the Jews, who called the potion ‘ariqa’.

The American Heritage Dictionary recognises the term arrack as, "strong liquors distilled from the fermented sap of toddy palms or molasses", describing a potent liquor made by the first pilgrims to arrive in America, carrying the recipe from their ancestors, some of strong Jewish descent.

Early history saw the Arabs trade along the Silk Road – and everywhere the Arabs went, arrack was sure to go. So much so, that you will find arrack in all its excuses spanning the globe.

In Raichur, India, fermented jaggery, rotten bananas and urea are some of the ingredients for the famous ‘magical potion’ that is loved by the men here. This list of ingredients may not sound very appetising but the worst is yet to come. Chloro-hydrate, a poisonous chemical is imported from Hyderabad and added to the concoction, making it highly intoxicating, and burns the inner organs of the body. Forget drinking for fun; this lethal potion claims the lives of at least twenty men every month.

Then we find Tungusian arrack, a spirituous liquor made by the Tartars of Tungusia, of sour mare’s milk, distilled twice or thrice between two earthen pots closely stopped; the liquor runs through a small wooden pipe.

But arrack is not just strong liquor with a diverse, if not peculiar, history; the drink’s proven popularity in most countries has also proved to be a high income-earner. In Nairobi, the African News Service reports that President Mwai Kibaki plans to commercialise the coconut tree, referred to as the "Star Tree crop" of the coast. The focus industry is to remain with the sale and consumption of coconut wine or arrack, ignoring the more than 200 by-products and uses of the wonder tree. And not to be left out, AsiaInfo Services (China) reports that many professional companies, such as LiFan Group, Greatwall Asset Management Corp., Great Star Film Co. Ltd., Changan Automobile, Penguin Investment and Jianlibao have entered the arrack industry this year. These are among the top twenty Chinese enterprises, sharing 97.4 per cent of the industrial profit.

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This fabled potion though, is only found in its purest form in Sri Lanka. We are the only country in the world to produce an arrack without the use of chemicals whatsoever, making it safer to consume than Scotch!

Arrack is also, in all countries, excepting our island home, white. The golden colour of our arrack comes from the burnt sugar, which is added to the brew, acting as a colouring agent. An explanation could possibly be derived from the fact that the public perceived dark liquor as a sign of social status. We coloured our liquor, inadvertently giving it that additional flavour that makes Sri Lanka’s arrack so unique.

Arrack has found itself even in classical literature, quote: "At evening time, Moti Guj would wash down his food with a quart of arrack, and Deesa would take a share, and sing songs between Moti Guj’s legs till it was time to go to bed" (Rudyard Kipling, "Mine Own People"), and A. Sivanandan, author of When Memory Dies, mentions the golden brew, quote "Under a heavy rain, Vijay takes another swig of arrack while dwelling on a line of Tamil poetry". Lind of nostalgic when you think of it; I mean, what better time to down a dram than when the weather’s lousy. How many times have you heard people say on a rainy day, "Pukka day for a booze, men!" When it rains, we pour.

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As a bridge builder, arrack shows us its potential in an unusual way. Welcome to Mankulum: Tiger territory. A vast swathe of northern Sri Lanka where separatist rebels show a defiant difference, even down to the clocks. The parallel state, until recently, ran half an hour behind the rest of Sri Lanka because Tamil Tigers refused to follow Colombo several years ago in changing the country’s standard time. Despite the resistance, similarities to the South abound and even extend to the bars in the North. Arrack flows free!


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