An essential ingredient in the Goan Catholic kitchen, toddy (sur) is the sap collected from coconut trees. It is sweet when freshly extracted from the tree, and is sometimes considered a poor man's wine.
Toddy tapping is the process of collecting sap from the bud (or spadix) of the palm tree, and is an activity that has been carried out in Southeast Asia for centuries. In 1770, British explorer Captain Cook discovered that the islanders of Savu, Indonesia, were tapping toddy from palm trees, and using it for drinking and as animal feed. Sri Lanka is also known for toddy tapping.
When the Portuguese came to Goa, they realized that the local population did not use vinegar. So, some Franciscan priests are believed to have solved the problem by using toddy to make vinegar.
In Goa, toddy is distilled into liquor, made into vinegar or jaggery. One coconut tree yields around 400 litres of toddy per year, and collecting it was the chief occupation of the Bhandaris, Komarpaik and Rendeir communities.
There are three varieties of toddy – the common one, neero and toddy for jaggery. Neero is purified toddy, and is obtained by cleaning the spadix carefully. The white liquid that is collected initially is sweet and non-alcoholic. It is a delicious drink and is locally used in the treatment of mild fevers.
The toddy meant for jaggery, is much sweeter than the common one and is collected in a damonem, which contains some lime. This toddy is later evaporated over a slow fire to produce coconut jaggery (madanchem godd).
THE PROCESS OF TODDY TAPPING
The process begins with a toddy taper climbing a coconut palm. Collecting of coconut sap begins early in the morning. In order to climb a tree, the toddy tappers tie a rope at the waist, and climb ladders made from coconut husks or steps carved into the bark of the tree.
When he reaches the top, he cuts open the spadix (poai) with a katti, also called coita. The spadix is tapped very gently with the handle of the katti (a flat semi-circular sickle) every alternate day until the spadix becomes flexible, indicating that the sap is ready. The tip of the spadix is then cut off to let the sap ooze out into a container (damonem or damnem).
Toddy is collected from the damonem in the morning and evening and is carried down from the tree top in long, hollowed out gourds, used as containers (dudhinem), before being poured into a clay pot (kollso). The spadix is sharpened at noon by slicing a small piece from the top so as to reactivate the flow of sap.
Once collected, the coconut sap begins fermenting immediately upon contact with air. Within two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine (approx 4% alcohol content), which is sweet and mildly intoxicating. Longer fermentation yields vinegar.
In order to prepare coconut feni (launecho soro), the toddy would be kept for three days to ferment in clay pots (monn or jhallo). It was later boiled in a big pot (bhann), the mouth of which was sealed with a wooden stopper. Once commonly drunk in Goa, launecho soro is hardly produced today. The clay utensils, which added flavour to the liquor, are no longer used, while the bhann has been replaced with a copper vessel.