I have to confess that it won’t be the first time I’ve gone to great lengths to get a drink, but heading off into the jungle on little more than a broad canoe up a river just north of Negombo was maybe pushing it.
The Taste of Toddy
On this occasion it wasn’t my idea, it was our guide’s. The trip upriver wasn’t quite Hearts of Darkness, but there was definitely a hint of Apocalypse Now in the scenery; khaki coloured waters, a dense forest of palms; electric kingfishers and lumbering monitor lizards helped add to the feeling of exploration…and all this just to taste a glass of toddy.
Google toddy and any number of websites will tell you that it’s the Sri Lankans’ most popular drink; a trip to a toddy shack is their version of going down the pub after work.
It’s made by fermenting the sap of coconut palms to create a white liquid. I’ve seen it described as almost cider like. More telling descriptions class it as having a ‘characteristic’ flavour.
We pulled up to the riverbank and headed through the palms to a clearing where there was a little hut, the toddy shack, and a couple of tables. On one of them four glasses filled with a white, sticky looking substance awaited our arrival.
Another guide had told me a few days previously that our unprepared western stomachs might not be able to handle toddy. “Drink it and you might die,” was how he actually put it.
Clearly this had embedded itself in my mind and I passed on my concern to the toddy barman at the shack who laughed and shook his head (I tried to remember if it was the same for Sri Lankans as Indians – was he saying yes, or no?)
He disappeared inside the shack and the four of us in the group eyed the unappetising looking glasses in front of us hesitantly. A toddy tapper (the guy who collects the sap from the trees did an impressive high wire act between the palms which conveniently distracted us from actually tasting the toddy.
“Drink, drink,” the guide pointed to the glasses.
There was no putting it off any longer; I put the glass my lips and drank, if you could call it drinking. None of the four of us said anything, but our faces must have screamed the same message. The guide laughed and the toddy barman emerged from the shack smiling and carrying four cool coca colas. I can honestly say coke has never tasted so good.
So what did it actually taste like? It had a…a…characteristic flavour is all I’m saying. But afterwards I was glad to get back to the arrack and Lion beer.