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Road Brew: How To Make Hooch With Tunisian Date Juice (Or Try)

Over the next couple of weeks, NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road trip across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves.

Inskeep and his team are traveling some 2,000 miles from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya, and on to Egypt's megacity of Cairo.

In between stories on changing economies, new political systems and emerging social rules, Inskeep is also sharing with us here at The Salt what he's been eating, and tapping us for some insight about it.

From Gabes, Tunisia, he sent us this query:

Before arriving in Gabes, we'd heard some vague mention of legmi – pronounced "leg me," as if you were trying to find a Guys and Dolls way of telling somebody to kick you.

It was said to be a drink made from date palms. Then one of our Tunisian colleagues spotted a woman selling it from a white refrigerator by the side of the road.

When we placed an order, she reached into the refrigerator for an over-sized plastic container, and tipped it over to pour into a 2-liter clear plastic bottle.

It was a yellow liquid — "light amber," NPR photographer and traveling companion John Poole called it. Less refined comparisons occurred to me, but we tried this sweet thick concoction anyway.

"It's like one-third maple syrup to two-thirds water, but with a hint of dates," Poole declared.

We'd heard that legmi was an alcoholic drink, but learned that this was wrong, or at least premature. Our roadside version of legmi was fresh and pure, but we were told that if left unrefrigerated, it might ferment.

Well, we're journalists, and we were just completing a story about the role of alcohol in Tunisia, where it is legal even if some activists have been campaigning against it. So we thought, why not try to make our own road hooch with the legmi in the bottle?

We were advised to seal and cover the bottle with a cloth and leave it in the sun. With a long drive ahead, Poole placed the bottle as recommended on the sunny side of the car.

Later, when we stopped for the night on the Tunisian island of Djerba, he took the bottle to his room, with hopes of waking to a bottle of carbonated legmi with a little kick.

But, alas, as he reported back the following morning: "The experiment did not work out well."

"When I woke up, the bottle had fallen over on its side... it bulged out in every direction," he said. He opened the cap the tiniest bit, and there was something of a legmi eruption. What remained in the bottle was "unbelievably foul" — not even worth a taste.

So here's our question. It is purely academic, of course, since the road through Tunisia leads toward Libya, which is legally a dry country. But if a Tunisian were presented with a bottle of legmi, how might they make properly fermented legmi?

Well, Steve, this was quite the research assignment you gave us. It turns out there aren't many date palm experts in the U.S.; actually none by our count. So we turned to the Food and Agriculture Organization, which has a handy report on the date palm we mined for some info on the crop.

Your legmi, it seems, was indeed made from date palm sap. And that sap can be converted by fermentation into palm wine or vinegar when yeasts get a hold of the sugar.

We can't know exactly what went wrong in your backseat experiment. But we suspect it has something to do with the time you left it to ferment (probably too long), the bacteria that might have been in the bottle (possibly tainting the fermentation process) or the temperature. Or some combination of the three.

We found one paper in the journal Food Chemistry, which notes that date palm sap is "sensitive to rapid spontaneous fermentation" and can get alcoholic within hours. In fact, it's now being studied to see whether its fast-fermenting properties might be added to other liquids to boost their fermentation process.

In any case, it's clear that somehow, bacteria had a field day with your legmi, and ultimately putrefied it.

As for making a real date wine from whole dates, here's what the FAO has to say:

"Date wines are popular in Sudan and North Africa. They are made using a variety of methodologies. Dakhai is produced by placing dates in a clean earthenware pot. For every one volume of dates between two and four volumes of boiling water are added. This is allowed to cool and is then sealed for three days. More warm water is then added and the container sealed again for seven to ten days. Many variations of date wine exist: El madfuna is produced by burying the earthenware pots underground. Benti merse is produced from a mixture of sorghum and dates. Nebit is produced from date syrup."

Perhaps you'll get another chance to make date hooch, but as you've noted, it probably won't be in dry Libya where you're headed! Next time, though, we recommend you give it just a couple of hours to ferment.

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