meryenda x FEATR: A Tapuey Documentary
What it takes to make this wild fermented rice brew from the Philippines
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Tapuey is also documented to be spelled as tapuy/tapey. It is called bayah/baya in some areas of Ifugao. Bubod (the wild yeast or starter culture) is also called ipoh or binohboh in Ifugao.
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meryenda x FEATR: A Tapuey Documentary
It’s here! The tapuey documentary and last month’s essay cover pretty much everything I’d like to write about this traditional Philippine beverage plus more, so I figured I’d use this issue to extend the tapuey conversation and also talk about how this video came to be.
For those unfamiliar with FEATR, it is a digital video channel dedicated to food, travel, and Filipino culture from The Fat Kid Inside Studios. It is run by Erwan Heussaff and his production team and has amassed over 3 million subscribers on Youtube. Their feature on asin tibuok—a sea salt from Albuquerque, Bohol— helped usher a renaissance in this heirloom product nearly on the brink of extinction (asin tibuok is now making its way to Filipino restaurants locally and internationally). FEATR continues to travel around the archipelago documenting humble food artisans and regional food ways in the Philippines.
For our collaboration, we decided to focus on tapuey— a traditional fermented rice beverage (also referred to as sweet rice wine) common in the highland regions of northern Luzon (I slipped up and said central Luzon but corrections have been made!) such as Ifugao and Ilocos Norte.
Now some of you may be wondering, why tapuey? As an already avid enthusiast of sake and ferments, I naturally was drawn to probing those categories dialed within the Philippine gastronomic landscape. When I first started researching rice beverages in the Philippines, I found myself a bit *overwhelmed*. The Philippines’ extensive linguistic diversity and equally expansive culinary expressions make it a challenge to isolate a distinguishable profile among the country’s native rice brews. I suppose it’s a good thing I find the messy confusion part of its allure.
At first, the world of Philippine rice beverages (and perhaps Filipino food in general) seems to lack clear structure or definitions. What if it’s because past narratives have attempted to lump the fantastic myriad of the archipelago? Now here we are, exploring the ways in which our own narratives are rebuilding and reshaping (and perhaps collapsing!) established rubrics.
What if the difference between calling the Philippines messy or complex is simply a matter of our language adjusting? What if the difference between seeing abundance or banality is a matter of our eyes adjusting?
I am reminded of Ruby Tandoh’s 2019 TASTE essay (it’s 2023 and still relevant), “When the Next Big Thing in Food Isn’t Actually Next” and the discussion on how food is welcomed or seen as desirable:
“Successful” immigrant cuisine ends up trivialized as “the new ramen,” or a return to a lost gastronomic purity, or the next trend, but very rarely is it just itself. But we can change the game, measuring success not by how high a cuisine can rise, but how deep it sinks its roots.
For familiarity in the video, we reference tapuey as Philippine rice wine, but I encourage you to call it what it is— tapuey. I think we can learn a lot from our everyday food champions: the panaderyas, carinderias, jolly jeeps, food peddlers, and street vendors who sustain and nourish the majority with no fluff or fuss. Order taho, not sweetened tofu pudding. Order goto, not Philippine congee. Order satti, not chicken skewers with sauce. Laing, bitso-bitso, batchoy, miki, dinardaraan— I can go on and on.
Tapuey is just that: tapuey. Not Philippine makgeolli. Not Philippine sake. Not Philippine rice wine. Yes, familiarity is key to raising awareness— to an extent. But for Philippine cuisine to anchor its hold outside of convenient, often subdued constructs, the conversations must begin with us and in the way we choose to present it.
Restaurants like Hapag, Toyo Eatery, and Linamnam have taken on that role in their respective spaces. How do we reel that to an individual level?
Food writer Alicia Kennedy recently shared a snippet of Maura Chen’s latest issue, “Learning from Los Angeles” published on drafting curbside. While focused on comparing the food scenes and urban landscapes of Los Angeles and London, it is an insightful read that extends to food expectations and assumptions.
Situating ourselves through comparison and contrast is helpful until it descends into reductive caricature and unhelpful stereotyping, leveled with the heavy-handed, inordinately-authoritative tone of a know-it-all tourist, and I’m always looking out for the moments when I cross that line.
The following is my preface to tapuey in an ideal world where everyone is eager to soak in food origins and all that is tethered to it (I guess that is you, fellow meryenda reader):
This is tapuey.
It’s a traditional Philippine rice beverage made with malagkit or sticky rice and bubod.
It’s commonly made in the highland areas of northern Luzon, in the Cordilleras and Ilocos Norte.
They also call it Philippine rice wine.
Versus another possible approach:
This is Philippine rice wine.
It’s like Korean makgeolli or Japanese sake.
It’s called tapuey.
One creates an introduction ripe for curiosity, offering an invitation to imagine sense of place, to observe, to learn. It is a place of humility. The other leaves tapuey to comparison and our own biases; we are then left to compare the unfamiliar with what we know: do I even know what makgeolli tastes like? Why doesn’t it taste like (grape) wine? This doesn’t look like sake.
Now before I broach how the words we use shape the ways in which we engage with what’s around us, I think it is first best to let the documentary prime the pump for this conversation. I will wrap up with a few closings thoughts from the video:
You can’t be curious about what you don’t know and that’s where tapuey is right now: on the cusp of a fervent but fading past and an eager present.
I think that’s the most exciting time because there is so much room for it to grow. What we’re seeing is maybe the beginning of a new chapter in Philippine beverages: one that may just perhaps redefine brewing and inspire a new tide of craftsmanship in the archipelago.
It would thrill us if you watch the full video on Youtube. Thank you to those who have taken time to watch and share it.
Behind The Senes
The biggest surprise to me in learning about tapuey is that it’s a brew that can be (and has been) made at home. In its own beauty of being made with mostly rice, a staple in most of our meals, it’s wild thinking about how many other Filipino dishes yet to be enjoyed and loved. Learning about tapuey has taught me that there’s more that I don’t know about our food, and I hope it encourages our community to continue to explore more— not only with the dishes we have yet to try, but to look at the dishes we grew up eating and thinking about them in a different way.
I hope that this story of Tapuey has helped “culture” an interest to delve deeper into all of the diverse and delicious fermented food and beverages that the Philippines has to offer. It’s important that we continue to spread the word about how special all of them are. Venture out to the provinces! Support the artisans who are keeping these traditions alive, or maybe even try to make it at your home.
My wish (or three) for the tapuey video is this: that it will spark more conversations, that it can become a useful resource that adds value to its makers, and that it inspires more to seek Philippine beverages on their own.
Proudly Promdi— https://www.instagram.com/proudlypromdi
Irene Binalet, Ifugao local guide— https://www.facebook.com/IreneIfugao
Kat Cortez, fermentation lead— https://www.instagram.com/katgot.hertongue
Philippines-based readers can purchase and taste tapuey through online general store Ritual or directly through Proudly Promdi
The Last Vestiges of Philippine Sea Salt
One day, Philippine salt can silently fade into another cultural artifact. We’ve lived without Philippine salt all this time so why care now when finely ground salt is conveniently within our reach?
How About Wine from the Philippines?
While most of wine literature and research focus on grape culture, several studies have been conducted to assess the potential of fruit wine. There have been promising results from many fruits familiar in the Philippines: mango, lychee, bignay or bugnay, guava, passion fruit, and rambutan. This leads back to the question that has fired every neuron of my culinary cortex since visiting the province: why don’t we know more about Philippine fruit wine?
Fizz, Funk, and Flavor: Following Philippine Ferments
That’s not to say the practice of fermentation is fraught. This generation, fueled by curiosity and growing food conscientiousness, is revitalizing this seemingly mystified practice. Fermentation has never been more exciting and in a time that urges humankind to rekindle care and sensibility for the world around them, fermentation has never been more relevant.
Thank you for making this documentary and sharing your knowledge of tapuey! It's amazing work. I'm really interested in learning about more tapuey, trying it, and also making it. I'm based in New York though - do you know if I can get the drink and/or its ingredients here somehow?
I've made sake before, which was so much fun. Being Filipino, I really want to try making tapuey!