Everyone can play the tuba…
by Ronnie Hoyle

YES YOU CAN – it’s dead easy. All you do is open your mouth and swallow…preferably before you get a taste of it on your tongue. But what comes out of your mouth immediately afterwards may not be music to most people: it is either the tuba coming back up in a hurry, or words that sound like: “What the hell was that?” as you gasp for breath.

Only a few first-timers are lucky enough, or brave enough, to whisper hoarsely: “That was nice: I’ll have another one...” and settle down to drink a gallon of the stuff with the local lads on the beach or in one of the village poruks, a sort of waiting shed with a homemade bamboo table in the middle.

Tuba, you see, is the local Filipino wine…and is made from the sap of the coconut palm (palwa) – and not to be mixed up with lambanog, which is a vodka-like spirit made from the sap of the nipa palm and is an (almost) entirely different drink.

Both will scramble your brains, of course – but it takes a bit longer with tuba and its’ derivatives, which are bahal and bahal lina (words that somehow mean ‘old tuba’ and ‘older still tuba’).

What might be called ‘nouveau tuba’ is almost straight from the tree and is a clean pinkish colour which is drunk within 24 hours, while bahal is fermented and a cloudy brown colour and at least six months old…and bahal lina is on the way to collecting its’ pension or being used as a form of vinegar and is usually drunk with the addition of a bit of Coca-Cola to sweeten it and make it partially palatable.

Served in any container which will not shrivel up and die immediately the fluid touches it, like a glass, a jam jar or a cracked cup – although it is considered greedy and impolite to swig it from the original container in great big gulps – tuba is passed a mouthful at a time around the gang, drunk from the same glass as a form of camaraderie, and should be accompanied by murmurs of appreciation: some coconut trees taste better than others, it seems.

The trees are selected by the ‘coconut pilot’ – who could be the maglulubi (coconut grower) or the owner of the kalubihan (coconut plantation) - who climbs his favourite trees daily to extract the sap by filling a specially-made bamboo tube near the top like a giant straw; but how, why and who first discovered the idea that you could drink the life out of a tree is lost in the mists of time…and nobody seems to want to know or care.

The derivatives are made by pouring the sap into an earthen jar and burying it in the ground to mature at an even temperature: the longer it is left, the more the sugary sap turns to alcohol and the stronger the finished product becomes - just like a good wine.

One of the favourite ways of using bahal lina is with a little soy sauce to add a piquant flavour to kinnilaw, which is raw fish Japanese-style, especially with slices of freshly-caught yellow or blue-fin tuna, although the taste of almost any raw fish is said to be improved by it.

The fact of the matter is that you either love, or hate, tuba as a drink – and can cope with the feeling of fur growing on your teeth and the fact that the taste seems to repeat on you with each burp. Eventually, it comes out of the sweat pores under your arms like an overdose of raw garlic: when you’ve drunk it, it seems everyone else has to know you have as well.

Filipinos, of course, swear that tuba is one of the products which put a bit more ‘oomph’ into their love-life, although that could be used as an excuse to stop the wife or girlfriend moaning too much about husbands and boyfriends’ drinking habits…knowing that they supposedly get the benefits of drinking it in the end.

In any event, no-one has yet taken to making tuba commercially as a best-selling aphrodisiac, unlike lambanog which comes in all sorts of flavours and colours, including blue bubble-gum! (If you don’t believe it, pop along to the alcohol section on the ground floor of Gaisano Country Mall at Banilad in Cebu and buy a bottle, if you dare!).

Since tuba is inexpensive – about 60 pesos a gallon, or cheaper in some barrios or barangays (little village communities) – and it can be bought from almost any sari-sari store on almost any island in the Philippines, drinking it is a popular way to pass the time and catch up on the village gossip through the chikka-chikka lines of communication, which are infinitely more informed and cheaper than text messaging.

Commercial lambanog comes in at about 90 pesos for a wine-size bottle.

Although tuba is less in demand in the larger towns and cities – probably because decent coconut trees are harder to find and ‘milk’ of their sustenance in urban areas, and, anyway, rhum is faster acting and easier to get hold of - it is still a thriving business in the more rural districts, where a new trade has begun in the collection of old equipment for sale as antique souvenirs to visitors for wall decorations.

PS: This article is not necessarily an endorsement for tuba, and we take no responsibility for the consequences of experimenting with tuba or lambanog…or any of their by-products!