Sago isn't the only palm that's mined for food in the Philippines. Nipa (Nypa fruticans) - and other palm varieties, including coconut and aren - are tapped to produce suka (vinegar), a Filipino kitchen staple, mildly alcoholic tuba, and more alcoholic laksoy. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia this same sap is boiled to make sugar. Such may also have been the case in the Philippines before the Spanish introduced cane sugar cultivation.
You'll often hear it said that coconut, aren, and nipa vinegar (and gula Melaka) are made from the sap of palm trees. That isn't quite the case - what's tapped are not the trunks of these trees but the stalks of the trees' flowers. Among the three varieties the nipa palm is unusual in that its stalk is cut and the sap harvested only after the flower has bloomed.
Nipa palms grow in muddy areas near brackish water. Unlike coconut palms, they're low-to-the-ground; their trunks actually grow horizontally beneath the surface of the earth, with branches jutting up in clumps. This makes harvesting the tuba (sap) relatively easy as the tapper doesn't have to scale a ladder to ready the flower stalk and collect sap.
Above, a resident of Barangay Banza in Mindanao's Butuan City prepares a flower stalk for tapping, by bending it down and away from the trunk of the palm, rubbing it with mud, and massaging it. The idea is to loosen the fibers inside the stalk enough to get the sap flowing without pulverizing them; this he'll do a couple times a day for a couple of weeks.
To determine whether or not the stalk is ready to be cut, he hacks away a bit of the flower to get at one of the white crispy nuggets hiding inside each 'petal'. These 'nuts', by the way, are also harvested and eaten as is or candied to make a nata de coco-like treat sometimes called 'palm seeds' and sold in jars of sugar syrup. They show up in halo-halo, and, in Vietnam, in a similar ice treat called che.
The stalk is ready for cutting when the flower's nuts are sweet (they also taste a little coconuty). The flower is taken off about six inches from where it attaches to the stalk and, once again, mud is rubbed along its length to draw the sap out (this is the last time the stalk will be mud-rubbed).
If the tapper has accurately gauged the readiness of the stalk then sap should start flowing right away.
It's captured in a bamboo tube that's attached to the end of the stalk.
The tuba is collected twice a day. Its sweet stickiness gums up the end of the stalk, so after each collection the tapper slices off about a half centimter or so to keep the sap flowing.
One stalk will produce tuba for about thirty days, by which time it will have been sliced, bit by bit, almost to the trunk.
Tuba begins to ferment almost as soon as it drops into the bamboo tube (sugar makers employ a variety of means to hinder fermentation). After it's collected it's added to a big wooden barrel. If left for three days it becomes bahal, the lightly sour, ever-so-slightly alcoholic beyond-tuba-but-not-quite-vinegar that Butuan City Market's kinilaw master Leo uses to dress his fresh fish.
After thirty days the tuba becomes suka. Our host in Butuan City adds extra flavor to his suka in the form of fresh chilies, onion, garlic, ginger, and lots of black pepper. This elixir we greedily spooned over everything from rice to grilled fish to fresh seaweed.
Or, fermented tuba can be made into laksoy, a clear alcoholic beverage. This still, set by the river and shaded by nipa thatch (yet another use for the palm - roofing and walling), is fueled by wood and turns twenty gallons of tuba into about one gallon of laksoy. The stills here in Banza are made of lawaan wood or stainless steel. Wood makes for a much more fragrant laksoy, we're told.
Inside the still, the tuba is heated to boiling. The steam that rises condenses on the still's concave metal cap and then drips through a tube, out and into a waiting jug.
The first round results in a lightly cloudy beverage. Laksoy isn't crystal clear - and doesn't earn the designation 'first-class' - until it's been distilled a second time. We found first-class laksoy to be more palatable than expected, with a wee bit of a floral scent - definately not rot-gut 'white lightning'. Some locals let raisins and/or ripe jackfruit macerate in the laksoy before cracking the bottle. If we had a jug of laksoy we'd treat it as we sometimes do rum: add mango, pineapple, lime rind, and a bit of vanilla bean and stow it away to flavor for thirty days.
In the barangay stills are a communal asset, supporting on average twenty families each. One lapad (flat, 'pocket-sized' 375 ml bottle) of laksoy fetches 10 pesos (about 25 US cents).
It may not be the tree of life, but the nipa palm is integral to the livelihood of this barangay, at least. The captain tells us that seventy percent of Banza's population is involved in the production of tuba, suka, and/or laksoy, as well as the harvesting of nipa 'nuts'.