Making Bornean Rice Wine (Tuak)

The term Rice Wine tends to get confused in Asia. In most Asian countries when people tell you Rice wine, they are actually about to give you rice distillate, essentially rice vodka. Most tourists who come to Malaysia have already been to Thailand or some other Asian countries, as a result when they hear anything about rice wine they run for the hills.

In Borneo however more often than not when people offer you rice wine they are actually offering you rice wine for a change. There are a few ocal names depending on the part of the island you visit, Tuak is the one I am most familiar and it functions all over Sarawak however Borak is also used in the upriver country and Ejok is another name which normally means pal wine but in some areas rice wine as well. Needless to say that almost every rice growing tribe out in Borneo has its own name and variety of rice wine. I am most familiar with the Iban version of it, which I learned to make from my mother in Law.

Ingredients

The basic ingredients for the wine are pretty simple: rice, sugar, water and yeast. It is, as always, more complicated when you get into the details. The rice most commonly (almost exclusively as far as I can tell) used for the wine is glutinous rice, usually the white variety. I have however experimented with other types of rice and even barley and they also work, though the recipe  needs to be adjusted because each has its own taste and calorie content, meaning using the same proportions will not work. If you are using normal rice for example I recommend using about 10% more rice than usual.

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Glutineus rice, note that it is more opaque white than normal rice you see in stores.

Things get even more complicated when you get to the yeast, “native” home made yeast is used. Buying it outside of Borneo is probably very difficult so if you are reading this from another part of the world you are going to have to get inventive. The yeast is sold in batches of floury ping pong sized balls. They are made for the most part of: normal rice flour, glutinous rice flour, cinnamon, ginger, another kind of ginger, another kind of ginger, another kind of ginger…you get the idea. Mixtures of anything up to 9 types of ginger are used. But I would keep in mind that ginger is an antibiotic* of sorts and too much of it tends to hinder the work of the yeast. Hence the varieties of tuak which use too many types of ginger are generally weaker in alcohol content and much too sweet. A mixture of normal baking yeast, rice flour, cinnamon and a little ginger may do the trick for you. mix the ingredients while fresh, then dry the mixture out for storage and to avoid contamination with mold.

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The process of breaking the yeast balls into powder (blender broke down 😉

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Yeast powder ready to use

Sugar was not used in the most traditional rice wine varieties, though other sweeteners like fruit or sugar cane have been used for at least 50 years before sugar took over. Today sugar is almost always used, at least among the Iban Tuak makers. You can use any sugar you like, white, brown, palm sugar, molasses etc. Even honey though keep in mind honey is also an antibiotic* and should be used as an addition and not as the principal sweetener.

Proportions

Once you have all your ingredients it is time for some proportions. The basic proportion I started out with was 4 kg rice, 4kg sugar, 1 kg yeast and about 4 litres of water for each kilogram of rice (i.e. 16 total for this recipe). You will note the recipe is for a rather large dose of the wine, well Ibans take their rice wine seriously and they tend to make 20, 50 or more litres of it at a time. Rice wine is typically made in april or may in time for the Gawai Dayak festival at the end of the month.

The process

Making rice wine is not too complicated once you get the hang of it. But there are some traps waiting for you the first few times. For one thing it is crucial to keep all implements, tools, vessels, containers and all ingredients, other than the yeast, sterile. Traditionally this is achieved by drying all implements in hot sun and boiling the ingredients. I found it easier to boil some water and scold every tool and container I intend to use. It is not the “Iban approved way” they tend to insist all the traditional customs are necessary however from their description I found that most have the same practical results as modern ways of sterilising things.

Anyway, the first step is to get a pot big enough for the rice, remember that rice will expand a lot once boiled, 4 kg of rice is a lot when boiled. You may need to boil the rice in batches. Rice cookers do an ok job as well though I prefer a slightly wetter stickier consistency. Boil the rice in as much water as it needs, the water used at this point does NOT count towards the total I gave you in the ingredient list. This is because I have never measured how much I use in terms of litres. Typically I put the desired amount of rice into a pot, measure how deep it is and add water until it is covered with a layer of water equal to the rice. Ie: rice is 10 cm deep so there should be 20 cm of water in the pot (including the rice).

Boil the rice until it is a bit softer than usually eaten. You may need to stir it often if you are using a normal pot, dont let it burn. Once boiled cover up the pot and wait until the rice is cooled. Check the outside of the pot for temperature, DO NOT touch the rice with your hand. You hands should not from this point on come in  contact with the rice at ay time until the rice wine is finished. Do make sure the pot has cooled to room temperature before going on to the next step, this may take as much as 12 hours with a big pot.

The next step is to prepare the yeast, it should be broken up from the balls it is in into a fine powder. Pestles are traditionally used, I have changed this to a blender and it works just as well only faster and with less mess.  😉  The resulting powder should be mixed with the cool rice. I usually put thin (2-5 cm) layers of rice in the container I intend to use for the fermentation and cover each layer with a generous sprinkling of yeast powder (basically until you cant really see the rice ;). If the layers are very thin you do not need to mix the rice but it is best to mix it with a large spoon or ladle (scolded in boiling water first). Sprinkle a little more yeast on top after the mixing, especially if there are any areas of particularly wet rice.

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Mixing boiled rice with yeast powder can be the most physically demanding part of the process due to the viscous nature of the rice at this point

Now cover the container, it should not be hermetically sealed, but is should be safe from any dust, insects etc. Once this is done wait…for 2-5 days. The rice should become more liquid and smell strongly of fermentation by this point.

when the rice is ready boil the sugar and water from the ingredients list together. Remember that all sugar and all water that goes into the mixture has to be boiled first. Again you have to wait for it to cool down (or it will kill the yeast) to room temperature before proceeding. The last step is easy, pour the water into the container, mix the resulting mess well with a sterile ladle, then cover it again and wait again. In Borneo or other equaly warm places the fermentation takes 3 weeks round about. But the wine should be left for about 2 more months after that to clarify well and for the taste to get a fuller rounder kind of tone to it. After this time the mixture can be delicately removed from above the rice which for the most part will be at the bottom. About 1/3 of the rice floats on the surface, I am not sure why but this is normal and you dont need to worry about it.

Rice wine prepared in  this way can be stored for a long time. However it will keep processing the sugar at a slower rate, so it needs to be over sweetened if you intend to drink it more than a year after you make it. I have drunk rice wines stored for as much as 20 years. They tend to get more of a honey taste as they age and develop a darker colour, going from a white wine colour to a deep whiskey like brown. The final taste if the wine is allowed to age is a lot like Mead (honey wine).

As with other wines the making process and the ingredients both can be affected by countless variables, the most important part is to keep all tools and containers sterile, if your rice doesnt get moldy you have won half the battle. Experimenting with various types of rice and additional ingredients can be a lot of fun, the only problem is that once you figure the process out you will have a growing stack of wine bottles and no “healthy” way of getting rid of them.

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Rice wine (in the bottles) is often used in traditional ceremonies and celebrations. Note the cloudy appearance of the wine on the left side of the photo, this is younger wine, not yet fully clarified.

* I use the term antibiotic in a very loose way. Both honey and ginger kill yeast and stop fermentation though I am not sure if they are technically antibiotics.

Disclaimer: even in Borneo people sometimes make the typical asian mistake. before drinking rice wine look at it, if it looks quite clear and colourless ask if it is Tuak or Langkau, if the answer is Langkau the drink is more like vodka and it is the result of distillation of tusk. You should avoid this type of drink near big cities as the need for a lot of this stuff encourages the producers to cut corners in all sorts of inventive and at times toxic ways (e.g. mothballs for added kick). If the rink is tuak the drink is safe, though it can still give you a hang over.

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6 Responses

  1. Wow. This is definitely amazing. I mean…you even managed to figure out the recipe? You do have the blood of a real Borneo Tribal club.
    Anyways, do check us out for more information if you are planning to come over. Plus, love your blogs.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pakej-Percutian-Sabah-Sarawak-Travel/147676668611398?ref=hl

    • Well the recipe started with my mother-in-law’s recipe, but I made some changes later. The key with Tuak, or many other ventures for that matter, is to keep good notes on what you are doing, when and how much of any ingredient you are using. That way you can make adjustments and avoid mistakes in future mixes.

  2. Hi, while i am searching for some write up of tuak for my page AUTHENTIC SARAWAK FOOD AND HISTORY in Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SarawakFoodHistory), I came across your blog and find that it is an excellent articles. I have linked your blog to this page hopefully it will benefic more Sarawakians in understanding our Sarawakian Cuisines. If you have a Facebook Account, please come to the page and have a look as I will try to select Sarawakian Bloggers for every posts that write about our Sarawak Cuisines. Please support the Page by liking it if you find that what had been written will beneficial to other readers. Thanks and cheers.

    • Hi! It’s amazing how you shared the making of tuak in such great details. I’ve got a premium vine tuak 1999 from borneo. Does it have an expire date?

      • The period you can keep tuak depends on the total content of sugar and alcohol in it. If the one you bought was fairly sweet it can easily last 30 and more if you have the patience 😉 On the other had if it was the lighter “men’s” version then it will not last much longer than 2 years usually. It doesn’t spoil beyond that point but the yeast continues to do its work and turns all the sugar into alcohol, so the taste becomes quite sour.

  3. […] by these longhouse vintners.  Give it a swig.  And if you want to try making your own rice wine, check this out for excellent directions on how to get your liquor on at […]

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