There are few trees which serve man's needs in so many ways, more so in Myanmar as the toddy palm. She (may I liken her to a graceful damsel of the plains, a tall shapely beauty deserving of a feminine pronoun) is an endearing feature in the backdrop on the Myanmar landscape, an idyllic model for the artists and shutterbugs, an oasis offering a shady haven from the scorching heat of the arid plains of Central Myanmar. She is also an interesting subject in pros and poetry that enrich our literary knowledge, and riddles to bring giggles to young and old alike. Just sample a ticklish one, seemingly bordering on the naughty but which actually is not, to quote from a famous essayist in English, the late Daw Khin Myo Chit:
"When young the skirt she will wear, Growing she casts off to stand and bare. Who is she?"
Hey...hey... not a model by any chance? Nothing leery, begging your pardon! The riddle simply describes the stages of growth of 'she' the palm tree. When she first shoots out of the earth, little taper of green, she resembles the parrot's tails. When she grows a little taller she resembles a girl's hand waving to her lover. When she grows to the height of six feet and above, her shapely form is skirted with stems implanted one upon another like many-tiered frills turned upwards, so bewitching as to earn the name of "Thamee Hla" or "beautiful daughter." Then as she grows taller the skirt falls off. There lies the unraveling of the riddle, the perfect answer, "the one who casts off her skirt when grows up." Ha...ha..if it were not the palm....
The toddy palm grove, especially in the Central Myanmar regions is said to be a paradise offering welcome shelter and tranquility to many a weary traveler. But paradise it also is to the thirsty ones who seek her cool smooth solace. For its toddy udders (Htan No) as the juice-producing shoot is called, offers the delicious necter from heaven through the stately palms.
Milking toddy juice is a high-risk venture calling for a high degree of skill, dexterity and cool confidence especially scaling sixty feet plus trunk. Witness the lowly toddy palm climber in his daily rounds beginning in the early hours of dawn. His tools of trade are simple: a sharp knife, a cluster of earthen pots blackened in open fire and a longyi to act as a loop, transported up and down the tapering trunk.
In a moment the climber hugs most lovingly at the trunk, tucking the longyi across his two feet like a loop. In another fleeting moment he is up and away, a tiny speck of a man crawling unendingly, swaying in the rhythm of the tree teased by the clear wind of the plains. As he nears the top where the palm fronds spread like a giant fan, there is a slander bamboo ladder leading to the juicy shoots. The earthern pots are placed directly under the sliced shoots so that the toddy juice trickles into the receiving pot. Strings are circled round the rim of the pot and tied firmly to the stem to withstand the wind.
The toddy climber checks the pots, and unties the ones filled with milky nectar. Then he replaces them with the empty ones for the next day's rounds. Then he trims the shoots with his sharp knife for unclotted flow. Tucking the pots around his waist he begins his descent. He delivers the pots of juice to his waiting assistant, takes another cluster of empty pots and climbs the next tree. Up and down, up and down he toils the whole morning, scaling the majestic trees, to complete the quota for the day. Meanwhile his family empties the contents into a larger receptacle and carries it to market center to sell to the waiting customers.
There are many products made out of toddy juice. The principle fare, i.e. the toddy nectar (Htann yai) and jaggery and its derivatives will be the theme of my present article.
Brown Sugar MakingToddy palm plantation is a thriving commercial undertaking in Central Myanmar. Jaggery, the brown sugar, a popular sweetmeat akin to candy, is the major product derived from toddy juice. Toddy juice is poured into big cauldrons and boiled on huge open fires and stirred until it becomes a sticky dough. Then it is cooled and moulded into the shapes desired. Enterprising candy coconuts or ground red plums to offer a verity of flavors.
The jaggery candies with its distinct flavor and taste are relished by young and old, village folks and urbanites, venerable monks, nuns and laymen. The Buddhist order of the Sanghas uphold lifelong precepts one of which exhorts abstention from partaking solid foods from noon to early dawn of the next day, Lasting 17 hours. However the holy monks can take a jaggery or two as medicine. So can the lay persons and nuns who also observe the advanced precepts.
Toddy syrup is also another important product obtained by boiling the toddy juice. This syrup forms an essential ingredient in preparing Myanmar indigenous traditional medicines. These medicines have been in existence since the olden days of Myanmar kings, and is widely in use today side by side with western patent medicines.
Jaggery syrup has other medicinal values too. Thin syrup flavored with green betel leaves is a sure cure for seasonal colds and slight fevers, when taken hot. Jaggery crushed and fried with oil is a welcome diet for minor stomach upset in children.
Jaggery earns a respectable place in the popular Myanmar snacks, even preferred over sugar because of its special aroma and extra sweetening effect. There are a wide variety of snacks, teasers, relishes: pancake, puddings, doughnut soaked in syrup, dumplings stuffed with a small chip of jaggery etc. Pagoda festivals in the countryside, especially at the open season after the monsoon are centers of such local snacks, a must, if I may suggest for visitors to Myanmar, to see us as we are, and enjoy our simple fare a'-la-jaggery. For those who have tasted popcorn with maple syrup, please try popcorn roasted with pure ghee and trickled with pure jaggery syrup. It's simply delicious, believe me! Also, nothing is so...so satisfying to a typical Myanmar senior adult than a bite of jaggery after a rich Myanmar meal, gulped with hot green tea, so...so...heavenly, "sans equal" bien sure!
As I have mentioned earlier, toddy palm groves amidst the parched plains of Central Myanmar is an oasis, providing refreshingly cool shelter to a weary traveler. Robust youths and adults, weary or not, just do not go into the palm groves only to rest. The better fare lies in wait, to sooth the heat and quench the parched palate. Herein at the foot of the stately groves is the nectar, drink of the gods, bounty of nature, with piquant taste and lingering tang, beckoning you to sit down on mother earth's green grass carpet and enjoy.
The morning pot is ideally the nectar of the first water, scintillating with myriad colors of the jay's wing, bubbles popping like frisky shrimps, milky juice fresh, sizzling with a crest of white foaming froth. So tempting is its exotic taste that in the olden days certain choice palm groves were exclusively for the royalty and the nobility of the times.
Food tastes best at its source, so the saying goes. Durians bring forth the true flavor when enjoyed in the plantations. Beer tastes best in the brewery, bringing me the memory of my visit to Schlitz Brewery in Milwaukee, and Dyer Meakin (now Mandalay) Brewery in Mandalay. Toddy juice, in the same parlance tastes supreme in the palm grove, fresh, bubbling, in pristine form, not yet adulterated. Like-minded friends make toddy tastes better. So with tantalizing teasers like roasted rabbit or fowl, fresh salad of onions, chilli and slices of lime, with the earthen pot taking the center stage, it is really a revelry to remember.
In my younger days Omar Khayyam the renowned Persian poet kept me enthralled with his philosophy, wit, love of wine and...er...what not. If he had tasted this nectar of the gods from our toddy grove, he might have eulogized them in his rubaiyats. For me these lines still give me the thrills as it had done many many years ago, bemusing the hypnotic beauty of the paradise:
"Here with a loaf of bread, beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, (here substitute with toddy)
A book of verse and thou, beside me,
Singing in wilderness,
And wilderness is paradise enow."
Sages of the plains say that taken in moderation this heavenly nectar is a health giving and body strengthening drink for young and old. So why not we all enjoy while the day is young, or not too young etc.