THE Kadazandusun community makes a variety of traditional alcoholic drinks.
First, there is tapai, derived from rice fermented for a couple of weeks and then diluted with water.
This is a very simple and common way of making tapai drink.
Lihing is also made from rice but allowed to ferment longer until it turns into potent wine.
Another beverage is palm wine, known locally as bahar which is extracted from nipah palms and coconut trees. In Kota Belud, it is mostly derived from the latter.
Sumil Basanau, 46, is a third generation tapper from Kampung Tombulion Laut, Kota Belud. He extracts bahar from the coconut trees in his village.
He said bahar is derived from the flowers of the coconut tree while they are still in bud form.
“What I usually do is build a bamboo ladder right up to the top of the coconut tree. Some people don’t do this but I think safety first and so I build the ladder. This is especially important if the tree is tall like 12 feet and above. The risk of falling can be minimised this way.”
What usually happens is that when a bud appears on the tree, Sumil will tie it down so that it droops. He will then bind the bud, crop the tip and leave it for at least three days. After that, he returns with a container.
In the old days, bamboo cuts were used to catch the sap but nowadays, plastic containers or anything that can catch the sap, are used instead.
“I will climb up and secure the container to the bud so that the sap will flow down without spilling. I will then cut a very thin slice of the sap just so it flows again,” Sumil explained.
According to him, the sap will flow the whole day slowly but surely and is cut slightly again in the evening.
It is collected everyday at 5pm or so.
By that time, there should be a litre or more of sap collected in the container. It will be then taken down and another container put in position.
“I get about a litre a day, or at times, about a litre and a half. It depends on how nicely and neatly the sap is sliced. So I do this everyday to collect the sap,” he said.
Sumil shared that one bud of about two feet long would last a couple of months — so he can fill about 60 containers from each flower stump. The more trees, the more bahar to be harvested.
“The liquid, initially collected, is actually very sweet and non-alcoholic before we put additives, called rosok, into it. This is taken from the bark of a certain tree which usually makes the liquid turn reddish. The more bark, the more potent the liquid — and of course, also brighter in colour.”
Sumil usually sells the drinks to non-active tappers or people without coconut trees to tap. He also receives orders for weddings and celebrations.
“I usually advise them to inform me early so I can keep the bahar for them. Having a refrigerator helps. The taste doesn’t change but it will without refrigeration. It will usually go bad very fast.”
Tapping for bahar is one of the cultures he has lived with all his life, coming, as he does, from a long line of tappers, and has actually inherited his late father-in-law’s tapping knife, treasured by people who understand this skill.
Sumil’s wife Rosaleen said when her father passed away many years ago, her husband was given the tapping knife and has been using it ever since.
“It is believed the knife for slicing the buds plays a big part in ensuring steady and strong flow of the sap. My father was well-known for harvesting good and large amounts of bahar and so does my husband.”
The couple, married for 26 years, have six children, two of whom are boys.
“My sons know about bahar of course — it’s so much part of the community but I don’t encourage drinking. For me, I make bahar for a living. One day, if my boys decide to tap, I won’t stop them,” he said.
Sumil and Rosaleen also sell flower and plants at the Kota Belud traditional weekly market.
Just like any other villagers who live off the land to supplement their income, the couple is very innovative, especially in turning to nature for their array of products.
With their bahar tapping activity, they are, in fact, helping to keep the tradition alive.