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Palm Sugar: Bittersweet?

By: Ade Tanesia

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

“This is our own sugar. Try it, mbak.” Nearly every family in the village has a jar with pieces of palm sugar on hand to offer guests. We are in the hamlet of Nganjir, Hargorejo village, Kokap sub-district, Kulon Progo district in the Special Territory of Jogjakarta. A visit isn’t complete without tasting the host’s palm sugar, or gula jawa, as it’s called. I am not in the habit of eating palm sugar, but I try a bit out of respect for my hosts. It is a semi-spherical cake, pale to reddish-brown in color. Although it is hard, the sugar melts immediately on the tongue. The sweetness is rich, like chocolate.

People were making palm sugar long before the Dutch built the cane sugar industry. Although the custom of offering palm sugar to guests is no longer common in Cental Java, except in sugar producing areas, every household kitchen keeps a stock of palm sugar for cooking. The people of Central Java famously prefer their food to be sweet. Palm sugar is an ingredient of nearly everything, from cakes to chicken stew. Coconut milk and palm sugar are the basis of beverages called kolak. Dawet —a kolak made with natural gelatine—is a popular drink for ending the day’s fast during the month of Ramadan. Palm sugar is found in a number of traditional sweets such as kue lupis, kelepon ubi kayu, ampyang, and jenang. It is an important ingredient in the soy-based sauces called kecap and in the pungent and spicy raw fruit salad called rujak. Palm sugar is entirely different from the gula pasir (literally, ‘sand sugar’) that is obtained from sugar cane.

It’s one in the afternoon. Mbah Marto Ngadiran has just finished eating. His wife, Mbah Ginah, is still stirring a solution of palm sugar in a large wok. Next to her is a pot of nira—palm sap—boiling on the hearth. Mbah Ginah still cooks with firewood picked up in the forest, rather than the more readily available kerosene. She says that using kerosene is too expensive. The noonday sun is fierce. The fire in the stove makes the kitchen hotter still. Mbah Ginah’s face is dripping with sweat, but she doesn’t quit her stove. She has to get the sugar done for sale in the warung. “We’ve lived from palm sugar for decades,” she says.

It’s a family business. Her husband has around fifteen coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) which he taps for nira, while Mbah Ginah governs the realm of the kitchen. The process is fairly simple. The sap is collected by cutting the tree’s flower while it is still a bud and catching the nira that drips from it in a bamboo tube (bumbung). The nira is strained and then set to boil. As the liquid evaporates, the solution is stirred until it thickens. Then it is poured into coconut shell molds. When it has cooled and hardened, it is ready to sell.
The Kulon Progo area is hilly and rocky, making it unsuitable for rice farming or vegetable gardens. On the other hand, there are plentiful plantings of trees: teak, mahogany, sengon, melinjo, and coconut palms. From the coconut palms, the people of Kulon Progo take not only the coconuts but also the sweet sap of the flower.

Mbah Marto Ngadiran, over seventy years old, has spent most of his life going from one coconut tree to the next collecting sap (nderes, in Javanese). He has been doing this since he was twenty. Like most young men in those days, he could make forty climbs a day. Every morning from six until eight o’clock, he would climb ten-meter trees and hang a bumbung under the flower. Then every afternoon, from three to five, he would climb the trees again to take the sap. This has been his routine for fifty years. With the proceeds of the palm sugar production—about five kilograms per day—the couple were able to send eight children through high school. “We didn’t hope for university. High school is enough. There’s still one child who lives with us, and he will carry on the business,” says Mbah Ginah.
Their little palm sugar business has seen good times and bad. Once pests attacked the trees and they lost not only the flowers but the coconuts as well. Nonetheless, Mbah Ginah says that God was fair with them because at that same time, road-building projects needed rocks from Kulon Progo. So Mbah Marto changed profession for a while, breaking stones and selling them.

Young men still collect nira in the village of Nganjir. One of them is Jembadi, who makes fifty climbs a day for an average daily production of ten kilos of palm sugar. Pak Dono Wiyoto climbs fifteen to twenty trees a day, some of them his own and some belonging to other owners, with a third of the nira going to the owner. Pak Dono Wiyoto used to use bamboo bumbung, but now uses tin containers made from old biscuit tins. These are cheaper, and sometimes he can find the materials himself in the trash. His wife Tumirah makes the palm sugar and sells it. She has been selling palm sugar for some forty years. Formerly she would walk from one palm sugar ‘factory’ to the next buying sugar. Now she has a little pick-up truck. “Once a week I go to the village of Kali Rejo to get palm sugar. It’s better quality—not too dark; more of a cream color—and it gets a better price. I usually sell that palm sugar at the Wates market in Kokap, then I deliver to Ibu Adi, a merchant in Jenang, and to Pak Sugiyo who will process the palm sugar into crystal sugar. When I go to Kali Rejo, I also bring goods like raw rice, kerosene and other household necessities. They buy my goods and I buy their palm sugar.” As a trader, Tumirah makes more money than Mbah Marto and Mbah Ginah.

Pak Sugiyo is another whose business aspirations go beyond the cottage production of palm sugar. Three years ago, he decided to takes the process a step further. Instead of pouring the sugar paste into molds, he continues to stir it and puts it through a sieve to obtain tiny grains, called crystal palm sugar (gula kelapa kristal). Pak Sugiyo calls his brand of crystal palm sugar Gula Semut, meaning ‘ant sugar’. “There’s an expression: where there’s sugar, there are ants’ (ada gula ada semut). I hope that buyers will flock to my sugar like ants.”
“How’s business?” we ask.
“Not bad,” he says. “I’ve been able to fix up my house.” Indeed, Pak Sugiyo’s house is not like the others in the village. Whereas these have cement or even dirt floors, Pak Sugiyo’s house boasts ceramic tile. A large packet of Gula Semut holds 200 grams and sells for Rp3,500; a smaller packet sells for Rp2,500—a big difference from cottage-produced palm sugar at Rp2,000 to Rp3,000 per kilogram.
Pak Sugiyo conducted experiments, mixing the crystal sugar with ginger and other aromatic roots with medicinal properties such as tumeric, kunir putih, temu lawak (wild ginger), kencur (lesser galangale) and lengkuas (greater galangale). This adds weight to the product, and after some analyses at a government health center, he can claim that his Gula Semut can be used as medicine. He claims, for example, that his palm sugar and kunir putih mixture can prevent cancer, tumors and kidney disease. The medicinal properties of his palm sugar naturally intrigues buyers. Pak Sugiyo says, “I just want people to keep using palm sugar. True, I no longer make palm sugar in traditional shapes, but I buy it from the traditional producers and this is basic material of Gula Semut.”

Although Pak Sugiyo is visibly successful, not many cottage producers are following his example. Mbah Marto, for instance, feels that he doesn’t have enough capital to add the equipment necessary to make gula semut.
Pak Sugiyo’s campaign to elevate the image of palm sugar hasn’t stop at product innovation. In the year 2002, he also put a proposal to the district government of Kulon Progo to make a giant palm sugar tumpeng (festive cone), three meters high. This idea met with great enthusiasm, and the government donated some Rp32.5 million (nearly US$4,000) for the project. With a big smile, Pak Sugiyo says, “We needed five tons of palm sugar to make this tumpeng. About sixteen cottage producers came to the district government office to work on it. By the time it was made, I had already contacted bakeries to buy the tumpeng to use in their cakes.” The success of the project was crowned with its formal inscription in the National Museum of Records—an indelible tribute to the importance of palm sugar.
Palm sugar has nutritional attributes—such as calcium, phosphorates, iron, protein and fats—not found in cane sugar. Some people believe that eating palm sugar will provide enough nutrients against bone porosity to make it unnecessary to drink (expensive) milk, as one is always being urged to do by television advertisements. On the other hand, there is still a popular perception of the coarse brown palm sugar being less ‘clean’ than pure white cane sugar.

Kulon Progo is certainly not the only center of palm sugar production. Palm sugar is found throughout Southeast Asia. In Lombok, a similar palm sugar is made from the flower of the sugar palm called pohon enau (Borassus flabellifer). The harvesting technique is the same. Every morning, a sap collector (penarep) climbs the sugar palm. The tree will have already matured to ten years of age and reach a height of fifteen to twenty meters. The sap is collected from the calyx of the fruit, and—as in Java—caught in a bamboo container, in Lombok called a kekelok. But while Javanese palm sugar is poured into molds of coconut shell, Lombok palm sugar is poured into bamboo molds called cupak, some fifteen centimeters long and three centimeters in diameter.

The technical process of making palm sugar in Lombok is the same as in Java. But in Lombok, custom imposes a number of rules which, if defied, will spoil the end product. One may not urinate on the base of a sugar palm, for instance. Less obviously, one must offer the sap to another person, without being asked. It is thought that anyone who samples the nira will bless the sap gatherer with success. In Kulon Progo, it is thought that good palm sugar cannot be made in an unhappy household. This makes sense when you recall that palm sugar production is usually a family business, where husband and wife work together. Clearly discord between them can affect the smooth running of their work. The sweetness of palm sugar is a reflection of the sweetness of the marriage.

What a pity, then, that the value of a good marriage is not calculated into the market price of the palm sugar, which remains very low. In Java, poverty is decribed as pahit (bitter)—and in that sense, the life of palm sugar producers is not nearly as sweet as their sugar.

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