Traipsing through endless coconut groves outside Legazpi, I asked one of the locals if there was freshly made native coconut vinegar for sale in the area… After some discussion, we eventually made contact with one vendor through friends and acquaintances, and the next day headed off to the outskirts of Daraga, several kilometers away, ostensibly to purchase some good native vinegar. When we got to the address, we parked by a roadside stall that only had a few small bottles of opaque coconut vinegar for sale. I asked the vendor/owner a few questions about how the vinegar was made, whether it was the type of vinegar that contained live vinegar eels, etc. While I was thrilled to have found a few bottles of native vinegar, I wasn’t ecstatic, YET. A few minutes into the impromptu interview, the vendor asked if I would like to see how the vinegar was made, from tree to bottle… NOW we were talking… finally, my chance to learn a lot more about native coconut vinegar, which I will break into two posts, the first on tuba, the raw material, and a second post on the coconut vinegar. If I had more time, I could have gone one step further to lambanog, the distilled product from tuba, but they weren’t making any that day… I have enjoyed coconut vinegar for the past 40+ years, and frankly, until now, never really knew how it was made, so read on and experience the fascinating hour or two I spent on tuba and suka…
The adventure began with a short ride in our vehicle into the heart of a nearby coconut plantation. We then walked by foot several hundred meters into the coconut grove behind Mang Efren, who was the resident tuba gatherer in that area. Deeper and deeper into the “woods” we went and along the way, Mang Efren pointed out certain trees without coconuts on them, but instead, hanging tubes, called garong, that were collecting the dripping sap.
It was explained to me that the tuba or sap of the coconut was collected only from particular trees, those that were heavy tuba producers relative to their neighbors. As I understand the process, and my Bicolano language skills are non-existent, so I was relying on translators, the coconut tree sends out a flowering stem, which is severed with a scythe and the sap or tuba flows from this cut into the hanging cylinders, called garong. The sap is gathered from these cylinders every morning. A prolific tree can yield as much as a liter or two of tuba per day.
To get the tuba, Mang Efren must climb each and every tree, balance precariously 50-80 feet above ground, gather the tuba from the garong by transfering it to the container latched onto his shoulder, make a new slice or cut to the flowering branch with his scythe, and clamber back down the tree… Notice how he clings, barefoot, with just a two or three toes to the notches in the tree. He clambers up dozens of trees every morning.
Always believing that I was probably a monkey in a previous life (my arms are particularly long and gangly), and ignoring my personal fear of heights, I of course wanted to climb a coconut tree to fully appreciate the whole tuba experience. So with the daraykon latched onto my shoulder, I gingerly attempted to climb a tree. Well, let me tell you, it’s not an easy task for a 43 year old with humongous flat feet. Not only was getting a grip with my feet a nightmare, but the entire bloody tree trunk was crawling with humongous RED ANTS. Mang Efren assured me that these didn’t bite (yeah, right?!) so I tried to climb two or three notches up, only to leap off the tree when the ants started crawling all over my arms. YUCK. They should have folks on The Amazing Race do this task, they would have major conniptions.
Here is a photo of the sharp scythe, or sangot used to cut the flowering stem. Marketman could envision falling off the tree (no safety ropes or harnesses), impaling myself on the sangot, getting doused in fresh tuba from the daraykon, and dying a slow and painful death covered in red ants… Trust, me, buy the tuba and suka roadside instead… :)
The freshly gathered tuba can be enjoyed immediately. I was handed a glass of fresh tuba, collected that morning and I drank about a third of the glass. It was a bit sour, but utterly delicious. Unlike any tuba I have had before precisely because it was so fresh. But I thought it was still a bit more sour than it should be. After discussing this with Efren, he clearly got my drift, he walked off and got another glass from another container and had me try this second glass which was absolutely brilliant. Clean, vaguely sweet, vaguely reminiscent of coconut juice, with just a hint of alcohol. Now this was the finest tuba I will probably ever have; just hours old. The difference? Well it could gross you out a little, as it did me. Apparently, the garong or tube that collects the sap, used to be made out of a bamboo cylinder. These days, so high tech, it is made from a sliced up heavy duty PVC pipe. This tube is cleaned every once in a while by washing it out with water and using a brush to clear the tube. This eliminates yeasts and other natural beings that can speed the fermentation process even if the tuba is just hours old. Basically, the first glass was obtained from LESS CLEAN or not RECENTLY CLEANED PVC tubes, hence it was fermenting faster than the sap from a clean tube. The second glass was from a very recently cleaned tube. Ugghhh. Take a look inside a skanky, older and less clean tube and you wouldn’t imbibe this stuff so voluntarily. Not to worry, I didn’t get sick at all… in fact, I spent the rest of the morning with a slight high, don’t ask me to explain the chemistry, but the sap, which has a high sugar content, also seems to have an immediate alcoholic-like hit. Let’s just say it was harder to avoid the carabao poop piles on the long walk back to the car… :)
The gathered tuba is then placed in heavy duty plastic containers (the kind used for gas or kerosene) and either sold as tuba for a few days after gathering or eventually turned into coconut vinegar. Some folks use this new tuba in their kinilaw, to just flavor the dish, not cook it with a very high level of acidity that most vinegars possess… Tuba is sometimes referred to as bago (a day or so old) and bahal or bahalina for a couple of days old… it starts to naturally ferment into vinegar as it ages further…