Tuak (Iban Rice Whiskey)

8 Jan

One of the highlights of our trip to Sarawak was our visit to an Iban longhouse. Ibans, also known as Sea Dayaks, are one of the major tribes of Orang Asli, or indigenous peoples, in Sarawak. They’re also among the best known, because of their history of headhunting. (If you ever saw the episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain travels to Borneo, those are Ibans he’s hanging out with.)

Busting a move, Iban-style

Many Ibans still live in traditional longhouses (well, as traditional as you can be with aluminum roofing and satellite TV), where families live communally in one house, with a hereditary chief. Tourists can and often do visit these longhouses, which gives the tourists a glimpse of Iban culture and the people of the longhouse a source of income.

I have to admit I was initially a little apprehensive about this kind of visit — I was worried it would be like those Harlem church tours, gawping at the exotic furriners — but it was more like visiting the Amish (not that I’ve done that, either), provided the Amish are plying you with 40-proof liquor. As it turns out, showing
hospitality is an important part of the culture, and you do that by giving your guests tuak, a kind of homemade rice whiskey. On top of that, it was Christmas, so the men at Ukom — the house we visited — were in a festive mood. After the initial awkward introductions, stares from curious children, and presentation (and, of course, sale) of traditional crafts, they started pulling out bottles of tuak, and pretty soon everyone was chatting. Alcohol and food are universal social lubricants, I guess.

A toast to the hosts with the most

Oh, how did it taste? A bit like warm vodka (Ukom was not so modern as to have an ice machine), maybe a bit sweeter, but with just as much of a burn. As our hosts said, “very heaty.”

By the end of the visit, there were seven empty bottles — which proved to be too much of a good thing for our guide: he ended up taking home a baby monkey (orphaned, it was explained), which spent the boat ride home crawling all over me. Nothing like doing shots to prepare you for having a monkey on your back.

Norris with the new family pet


1. Pour a round of warm liquor in a much-larger-than-standard shot glass.
2. Raise your glass and yell “Ooooooooooh-HA!”
3. Drink the shot in one go, then repeat until you start thinking it’s a good idea to buy a pet monkey.



2 Responses to “Tuak (Iban Rice Whiskey)”

  1. Mr. Pickey January 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Two typos:
    (1) A stray “the” after the word Sarawak in the second sentence.
    (2) A stray “a” after the stuff about the seven empty bottles of tuak.
    Am I seeing a relationship between the number of shots of tuak
    consumed and the number of typos produced?

    • rgautz January 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

      Thanks for the spell-check. Since the tuak was consumed long before I wrote the post, I’m going to blame the editing software.

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