Tuak (too-wak) is a popular Iban rice wine made from glutinous rice and homemade yeast. It’s normally made for Gawai or the Harvest Festival, held every year on the 1st of June. Traditionally, it’s not commercially made, rather each household would make their own based on a family recipe handed down through generations.
If you visit any longhouse in Sarawak, it’s traditional to be served tuak as a welcome drink. However, be ready, there’ll be several people holding out the glasses as tuak to welcome you, not just one. And as a guest, you’re obliged to drink every glass offered.
Recently, my sister in New Zealand tried to make her own batch of tuak and I’m happy to report that it almost tastes as authentic as the tuak our mother makes. The difference was the yeast she used and that she replaced glutinous rice with sushi rice.
If you’re ever in this part of the world, go ahead and give tuak a try!
There are headhunting tribes documented in many countries around the world – Taiwan, New Zealand, India and also Malaysia. In Malaysia, the headhunting tribe is known as Iban or sea dayaks (sea people). Most Ibans are from Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo.
There were many reasons for why the Ibans mounted headhunting expeditions – avenging theft or murder, being the dominant reason. Another equally important reason the Iban men headhunted was that the Iban women showed a preference for a man who’s able to give proof of his bravery by killing one of the enemy. In this instance, I suppose, the enemy’s head was more valuable to the woman being courted, than a bunch of roses!
When I was writing this post, I found out that there’s a legend related among the Ibans as a reason for this custom –
Once upon a time, a young man loved a maiden, but she refused to marry him until he had brought to her some proof of what he was able to do. He went out hunting and killed a deer, and brought it to her, but still she would have nothing to say to him. He went again into the jungle, and, to show his courage fought and killed an orangutan, and brought it home as proof of his courage; but still she turned away from him. Then, in anger and disappointment, he rushed out and killed the first man he saw, and, throwing the victim’s head at the maiden’s feet, he blamed her for the crime she had led him to commit. To his surprise, she smiled on him, and said to him that at least, he had brought her a worthy gift, and she was ready to marry him.
Okay, so that also proved that us Iban women are bloodthirsty. Yes, us. I’m Iban 🙂
Of course, headhunting is no longer being practiced by the Ibans (As far as I’m aware) as it was banned by Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, in the 1800s. So, the Iban women had to settle for receiving something else other than heads, I suppose.
A long time ago, my father told me that our family has kept the heads of our enemies, heads that were cut by my ancestors. I’ve never seen them as the heads are in my father’s longhouse which is deep in the interior of Sarawak. Undoubtedly, I’m curious about these “heirlooms”. I’m also curious as to how many of these heads were used to win the hand of Iban maidens in the family.
We entered my Uncle’s house. The Uncle who’d just passed away the previous evening. My father’s sister-in-law saw us and immediately went to my father, clutched his shoulders and wailed. My mother and I excused ourselves as we walked pass the relatives who were already there, sitting cross-legged, on the kasah that was scattered on the floor of the living room. We sat in a corner of the room furthest away from my Uncle’s body.
I’d gone back to Kuching that weekend to spend time with Auntie Jenny and Uncle Steve, who’d come all the way from England. The possibility that I’d be on the way to Simunjan, a 2.5 hour drive away, that hot and sultry Saturday morning with my parents, was unplanned for. Truthfully, I was reluctant to go. I didn’t know my father’s relatives and the customs. I was afraid that I’d accidentally say or do something inappropriate. After mulling it a bit, I decided not to worry about it though because surely everyone would be busy planning for the funeral and I’d just be another face in the crowd.
Unfortunately, despite trying my hardest to be unobtrusive, relatives descended upon me mainly because…
…of my tattoos. You would think that coming from an ethnic group that prides itself on its tattoos that having them would be commonplace. Apparently not among this group of Ibans. Except for me, no one else had visible tattoos. I kept catching the older relatives glance not too discreetly at my tattoo-adorned wrists and ankles. The younger relatives were just outright staring as they sat on the wooden benches chain-smoking.
…I barely speak the language. Growing up, I learnt the native language my mother spoke, not my father’s. The only thing I knew how to say in my father’s native language is makai (eat), ngirup (drink), jalai (walk) and aku enda mereti (I don’t understand). Thankfully, Iban and Bahasa Malaysia have similar words so when one of the relatives spoke to me in Iban, I tried to catch any Bahasa Malaysia-sounding words and extrapolate the conversation from there. Even then, the relatives tended to speak to me three or four at a time and this made following any conversation difficult. In the end, I smiled and replied au (yes). I had some weird looks when I kept repeating au, but I was overwhelmed.
…I am still unmarried. My relatives (and even strangers, unfortunately) love asking about my marital status. I didn’t think this question would even come up though since it was a wake and the last thing anyone should be talking about is who is married and who isn’t. I was wrong. Again. A grandaunt asked my father how many children he has and was I the oldest, youngest or middle child. She then asked him if I was married and when he replied that I was bujang (single), that’s when my ears perked up. She followed up with asking if my younger siblings were married and when he responded in the affirmative, her eyes widened with surprise (I suppose). This discussion between the grandaunt and my father attracted the attention of the other relatives and the word bujang kept coming up. I inched away from them as stealthily as possible and went outside where no one was talking about my state of singlehood (I hope).
Maybe next time, at another gathering of relatives, I’ll cover up my tattoos and get a quickie marriage so that the relatives will notice someone else instead.