Palmyrah arrack in Jaffna
A slow eight-hour train ride had brought us from Colombo to Jaffna, the capital of the island’s northern province and the cultural capital of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, a militant outfit that fought for a separate country for Tamils in the north and east, ended in 2009, but tensions between Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority endure.
Diren, my friend from Colombo, had to convince his parents to let him take the trip. They were worried about him going on a photography assignment in the region where most Tamil rebel movements, including the LTTE, were born.
That evening, I was in search of arrack. Sri Lanka is known for coconut arrack, a spirit distilled from the fermented sap of the palm tree. But Jaffna is known for palmyrah palms, not coconut ones. It made sense to try palmyrah arrack, and I had promised myself that I would drink it where it’s meant to be drunk: in a cheap, local bar.
Neither of us spoke Tamil, and as a Sinhalese from the south, Diren had some concerns about encountering potential hostility. But despite his misgivings, he decided to come along.
Ravi Bar & Restaurant was about a hundred yards off the A9, the famous highway that connects Jaffna with Kandy in central Sri Lanka. I entered first, Diren a few steps behind. There was a barricaded counter and three tables. A young man spoke with me in broken English and offered me a bottle with a green-and-yellow label. He suggested I try it with a local brand of sparkling water. We also got two boiled eggs to go with the arrack.
Nuances are sometimes lost on me, but the palmyrah arrack looked a shade lighter than its coconut counterpart, and it definitely tasted different. Coconut arrack has more than a hint of sweetness: this did not. It was like whisky, but with the dry and flavorful taste of the palmyrah. The bar was noisy, and groups of friends were back-slapping each other while making jokes.
I was almost through with the quarter bottle when a man came pacing towards me. With his left palm on my right shoulder, he yelled, “Jaffna is the city is the heart of love!” He had probably realized I was not Sri Lankan and wanted me to feel welcome, despite the language barrier. I thanked him and nodded.
By then, Diren had warmed to the place, and I ordered another bottle. Maybe love is a tad easier with amber-colored palmyrah arrack for company.