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The dying trade of toddy tapping in Goa

Once a trade that employed thousands, today there are fewer than two hundred tappers in the sunshine state

Toddy tapping is a risky job
Toddy tapping is a risky job (Reuters)

No trip to Goa is complete without a bit of feni, a locally brewed spirit from cashews and coconuts. But while the cashew-based form of this drink arrived in India with the Portuguese for use in agriculture, its more native brethren, which comes from the coconutgroves speckled along the coast, is often left at the wayside.

The routine of collecting coconut sap begins in the early morning. In the past, the palms groves would swell with the echoes of yodeling or songs as the tappers would wake up for the first shift of the day. To climb the tree, they used rope tied at the waist, ladders made from coconut husks or steps carved into the very bark. The job was not without risks, and repetitive as well, as tappers climbed up trees and then back down, tree after tree, for three to six shifts a day.

At the top, once securing their balance, some would pluck and collect the coconuts while others would prepare the fronds–cut by a broad, curved blade–then fastened to an oblong gourd container. After time, the toddy would collect from the flowers and the tapper would return, carrying down the frothy and cloudy bounty. This almost-juice can be sipped immediately, but the true magic of these coconuts has yet to come.

Coconut sap (also known as sur) is fast to ferment, reaching a light rice beer-like zeal within hours of collection. At this stage, it is known for a milky, sweet quality. If allowed to ferment for longer, it yields a fortified substance similar to vinegar–an ingredient popularized by the Portuguese for cooking and baking. A staple local dish is sanna, rice that has been soaked in this toddy and then steamed, resembling a sweet idly with a hint of coconut and eaten during festive occasions.

In that past, toddy collections would be pooled together at the village bhattis, a local center for distillation. After the fermentation, they would boil the liquid in clay pots and collect the cooled vapors. The first batch is called urrak, still cloudy, light and fruity and revered by locals as it is only available for a few months a year beginning in early March (also, rumored to be great for digestion.) Then a subsequent distillation gives us coconut feni, the taste of which is hard to describe. It’s comparable to tequila, great both as a shot, or in cocktail form. But my personal favorite variant is served on the rocks with lemon, green chili, salt, and a healthy dose of Limca and soda.

As Remy Borges (president of the Margao Toddy Tapping Association) tells me, toddy tapping was one of the oldest occupations in Goa, as old as fishing and farming. A trade of thousands in the coastal region, second in importance only to rice harvesting, today fewer than two hundred tappers are now officially registered with the association. Because of advancing science and technology, the collection of toddy seems cumbersome.

Younger generations have distanced themselves from the craft, seeking jobs with either more security or less personal risk. Groves are trimmed for tourist destinations and the local bhattis for residences. Borges is struggling to keep this heritage alive for a new generation, exploring solutions through tourism and evolving the practice around safety or new coconut varietals.

If you’re lucky, you might still be able to taste fresh toddy or urrak, though it took me a week to procure it with the help of my taxi driver, Antonio. But in the meantime, a visit to the Goa Chitra Museum in Benaulim is a great way of experiencing the artifacts of this disappearing trade. And a Feni and Tapas tour by Make It Happen is an immersive method to imbibe that past–best put by my guide, Deepak: “I don’t drink, but when I do, I only drink feni.”

Nightcap is a weekly column on beverages by Varud Gupta, author of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan and Chhotu. @varudgupta

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