There's a sign on the wall of the small local bar that warns of the ill-effects of "overdosing" on tuak and durian. "Dear guests, this is not a place for fistfights or duels. It's just for those who enjoy tuak. Happy drinking."
We're in Medan, North Sumatra, at a lapo—or street-side bar—near the river in the city's Sei Batanghari neighborhood. We're there to drink some tuak, a local alcoholic drink made from fermented palm tree sap and coconuts. The resulting drink is milky white, sort of sweet, and only slightly alcoholic. But with enough tuak, and some durian meat thrown in the mix for good measure, the crowd of mostly young men are known to fight.
"When someone overdoses, fights break out and that person usually ends up vomiting," one of the drinkers explained.
Tuak is the alcohol of choice across much of North Sumatra. Look at Indonesia from a distance, and it's easy to fool yourself into thinking this is not much of a drinking nation. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than anywhere on earth, and the country's scant few local beers aren't known for their amazing flavor. But look closer and you'll see a wide variety of local brews, drinks like arak and tuak, which are made from things like fermented sap, rice, and fruits.
But few drinks are as regionally distinctive as the tuak of North Sumatra. The province is home to the Batak people, an ethnic subgroup who live near Lake Toba and across the province. They are, by and large, Christians, and tuak, they say, is what binds friends, and communities together.
"Tuak is the glue," a man explained. "We sing together. You got a problem? Just let it out. At the lapo, we pour our hearts out and look for a solution to life's problems."
Tuak producers start with an unripe coconut and cut the tip, draining the sweet water into a container. Someone then extracts sap from a palm tree. If the person is honest, the tuak will be sweet. If they aren't it will result in a bitter brew, according to local beliefs. Then, right before it's ready, a piece of raru wood is added to give it a bit of bitterness.
Elsewhere, fake tuak is made from coconut water, rice wine, and soda. But the only place to try real tuak is at lapo like these in North Sumatra. The men drained their glasses and played guitar. No one, it seemed, was close to "overdosing," on tuak and durian that night. I asked how important the drink was to the local Batak people. They turned to me and laughed.
"It's Batak milk," one man said.