Tuba: a large, valved, brass wind instrument with a bass pitch? Correct, but that is not at all what I’m talking about. The tuba I have in mind is a coastal drink in our area of Manzanillo. This drink is made from coconut palm sap and is sweet and pleasant by itself but can be fermented to a type of wine. Tuba is unique to the coast, Manzanillo and Colima.
Workers climb the palm tree, one not used for coconut production, and bruise the coconut flower stalk until the liquid begins to flow. The stalk is tied with bamboo strips and a bamboo container, or bottle, is used to collect the sap. Up to 3 flowers from one tree may be made to produce sap. Each flower produces tuba for two months then dries out and is cut from the tree. Tuba quenches the thirst and is said to be good for indigestion.
If you think “first thing in the morning” is 10am, you and I are having similar impressions of Mexico. But the workers, called tuberos, are already at work at dawn. Workers climb the narrow trunks to collect the sap. If you have never seen workers climb these trees to collect coconuts or prune the palms (palapas) you have missed a real show! This work, and tuba, is part of what makes our Mexican Pacific unique in its rich culture, habits, history and art.
Colima is known for its food and drink and keeping with tradition the tuberos climb to the highest point to tap into the sap of the palm flower. Tuba originated in the Philippines and came to Mexico, along with the coconut trees that line the highway to Colima, in the 16th century. The Philippines had been conquered by the Spanish and workers from there arrived with the seeds and the knowledge to cultivate sugar cane and rice in the rich volcanic soil. They worked with and exchanged customs with the local Mexicans. This sweet drink is also known as tuba in the Philippines.
You will find this drink in the streets and markets of Colima state and Manzanillo. It is sold by men wearing white linen clothing calling out “tuuuuuba”. They offer the drink served from a huge wooden jug at a stand or from jugs carried on a pole across their shoulders. For just a few pesos they will prepare you a fresh cup of tuba served with peanuts.
Tuba is collected in the morning and maintains its color and distinctive taste for two hours after being collected. Just five hours later, it begins to ferment. The sap can begin to ferment while still in the container on the tree, but the alcohol content increases with fermentation. If it sits for eight days, it turns to vinegar for cooking and pickling. The same vinegar used in a famous bread soup served at weddings and baptisms.
The tree itself has an interesting history. Today Colima is dominated by the coconut palm (Cocus nucifera) that is not native. It came from the Solomon Islands in the early 16th century. Growing in popularity it began to replace cacao as a more profitable crop with less work. With the coconut seeds came some Philippine slaves. Known as Chinese Indians they were brought ashore in Salagua to evade Acapulco customs. Because of their entry method there is little historical documentation on them. The owners hid them to avoid the tax on slaves at the time. These new immigrants became free, landowners and inter-mixed with the local population. They had the secrets and extensive knowledge of palm cultivation, potential and the juices and nectars that could be obtained.
The fermented tuba became a quality, low priced wine that gathered a following. It competed with the Castilla wine of the royal monopoly. Growers were persecuted under the guise of “social wellbeing and hygiene”. The Royal Audience of Mexico ordered the destruction of all coconut fields in 1612 but this order was never obeyed due to local resistance. The tuba beverage continued and by the end of the 18th century the Culture of the Coconut had become ingrained in the fabric of Colima’s identity.