Fold the corners of the tapai leaf
that you may fill it with stale rice
If you want your knowledge to last
Don’t ignore your teacher’s advice
Lipat berbucu si daun tapai
Hendak diisi beras sekal
Pesan guru jangan diabai
Jika hendak ilmunya kekal
A banana leaf wrapped and held with lidis could hold just about anything. In this case, it holds tapioca root, ubi kayu, that has … crossed over. Normally a dense, bland, starchy tuber considered poverty food or at best home cooking, it is transformed into a pillowy soft sweetness soaking in a fiery liqueur: tapai ubi.
The sweetness of tapai comes from the yeast
Honey from the bee is sweeter by far
Without faith a man is at loss
Like standing deadwood waiting to fall
Manis tapai kerana ragi
Lebih manis madu lebah
Tanpa iman manusia rugi
Bak kayu buruk menunggu rebah
Tapai refers to anything fermented with yeast. Cooked rice can become tapai nasi, popular in Sarawak. Glutinous rice, uncooked, becomes tapai pulut, the first step in the production of tuak or rice liquor. Muslims needn’t worry: although C2H6O is chemically present in the tapai, it does not intoxicate even in massive amounts and therefore is not khamr. Discerning the halal and eating it is not something our forefathers needed a chem lab for.
The first pantun suggests the tapai is cooked in the leaf, and I assumed it was, till early one morning at Satok market I found my dealer taking tapai ubi from a large plastic tub under the table. The banana leaf was just marketing! You gotta admit though, a banana leaf is classy packaging. Better that than a little plastic baggie, certainly, and environmentally friendly besides. Sanitary? Well I’m still standing here, ain’t I? Other leaves are also used, like young coconut leaves for tapai nasi, or less commonly, the unidentified swamp leaf below.
Tapai won’t cook without the yeast, or ragi, a dry crumbly substance sprinkled on top. I’m unsure what species of creature it is or where it comes from and I decline to enquire further. The last pantun suggests mysterious and distant origins and I’ll leave it at that.
The Javanese fellow is a maker of tapai
The yeast arrives from the shore over yonder
As long as my dreams remain unfulfilled
Let me die among strangers a trav’ler
Orang Jawa membuat tapai
Raginya datang dari seberang
Selagi cita-cita tidak tercapai
Biar mati di rantau orang
1. Also used for ketupat, previously on BGP.
2. Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.