James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Plan Your Day Around the Afternoon Booze Harvest

Plan Your Day Around the Afternoon Booze Harvest

Coconut Toddy in Malaysia

The old climber is dozing on a wooden bench, shirtless and shoeless, under a tin-roof shack surrounded by coconut trees. I can’t tell if he’s tired, too hot, or has been excessively rehydrating. Fat flies make his mustache twitch. A hefty, middle-aged man passes a bowl of deep-red wild boar curry over his head to a friend. They notice us getting out of the car, lift their glasses, and with the friendliest of Indian head-waggles, chug.

It’s a hot afternoon in April and I’m beyond parched. With little rain, temperatures in Malaysia have soared to roasting. My last grown-up beverage was four months ago in the United States, over an annual rendition of New Year’s Tipsy Scrabble. I could drink anytime I wanted—I’m older than 21 and not Muslim—but I fear the cheap local spirit, arrack, and am not about to pay the exorbitant government tax on beer, wine, and liquors. Local coconut toddy, only 3 ringgit a glass, is delicious, effective, and probably healthy. Over the past 16 Friday afternoons, I’ve only wished it was easier to find.

The barman emerges from the shed, wiping an assortment of beer-branded tumblers with an old rag. He recognizes me and head-waggles a greeting, his tidy white mustache and balding rim of hair shining paly against his dark skin. He sets the tumblers on a scratched metal table and nudges the skinny climber awake. Rubbing his face, he grabs a belt with the tools of his trade—a knife and a plastic bottle—and stalks toward the nearest tree. I’m gleeful. I’ve timed my visit perfectly for the afternoon’s alcoholic harvest.

The climber shimmies up the tree and removes a pot taped to the stem of what was a flower cluster, but is now a gaping wound oozing thin, sweet sap that, in this demented heat, turns quickly to alcohol. The alcohol content is unregulated—it ranges anywhere from 2 to 7 percent ABV, like a strong beer, depending on how hot the day is and how long the sap is left to ferment. When it’s cloudy and cool, the toddy stays sweet and bubbly like a kombucha tea. When it rains, the pots fill with water and the harvest is spoiled. On days like today, one sour sip of the morning’s harvest is strong enough to make my head buzz. I wait for the fresh, sweeter stuff, straight out of the tree.

“How do you know this place?” asks one of the men eating curry. There are no signs. This toddy bar sits on the third dirt road past the red restaurant, in a quiet row of small farms inhabited by Indian-Malays, an ethnic minority of mostly Hindus who comprise 7 percent of Malaysia’s population. I suspect that, like most toddy shacks, this one is unlabeled and tucked out of sight on purpose to avoid the Muslim-led government’s increasingly strict governance of alcohol production. It’s very unlikely that my Western friends and I would have found this place on our own.

“Local friends,” I reply.

On the ground, the climber hands over a full plastic jug and stretches back out in the shade. The barman pours the whitish-clear liquid, disturbingly like diluted bleach, through a sieve and directly into my glass, flicking aside debris and dead insects. Ignoring my squeamishness, I clink glasses with the two guys, their fingers stained red with curry. The liquid is like a sugared bread roll, yeasty and still warm from all that sun.

I hand my car keys to a friend who has more body weight than I do and settle onto the bench to drink.

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