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By Nancy Nais
ADAPTING to eating new dishes when I lived overseas was exciting but there was only so much cheeseburger or avocado toast that I could take before the rice, sambal or local Sarawakian sweets withdrawal symptoms started to kick in.
Let’s face it, nothing beats food from back home in Malaysia, which is why I cannot help but miss these things when I travel, something which I take for granted back when I am home in Malaysia.
When I lived in Germany, a few months after arriving, I came across a Chinese restaurant in Frankfurt which also served as a grocery store.
The dishes served weren’t as ‘authentic’ as claimed, but when you’re homesick, it’s good enough to scratch that itch for a taste of home.
After dinner, I took the opportunity to survey the grocery section and to my surprise and joy, I found three tubs of a familiar-looking hard, sweet dark brown substance. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw they were labelled ‘Gula Apong Sarawak’ (Sarawak palm sugar).
Without thinking any further, I grabbed all three containers and told myself paying the price tag of $25 Euro per tub was justified as long as I was happy.
Later as I savoured what I called ‘medicine’ to sooth my sweet tooth and homesickness, only then did it occur to me that I had no idea at all how gula apong is produced.
If you’re wondering how I finished three containers of gula apong, it wasn’t difficult. I used it to sweeten my coffee or tea. I also just chewed chunks of it while I read or while watching television, with a bottle of water by my side to wash down the sweetness.
Fast forward to when I returned for good to Sarawak, again I took it for granted gula apong’s easy availability so it never occurred to me to find out how it is produced.
Until recently that is. After asking around, I found out that Asajaya district, being very close to Kuching city, is well known for producing gula apong the traditional way.
Thanks to Asajaya district senior administrative officer Murni Sahdan who helped with my quest for gula apong, I was taken to two processing huts in Kampung Tambirat where local villagers are still practising the tedious traditional production methods.
I confess, at the time it didn’t occur to me that finding out how gula apong is made via traditional methods would actually require me to enter the processing hut inside a nipah forest!
I discovered my regular sandals were sorely inadequate for the journey. Each step forward resulted in me sinking deep into the mud, as deep as five inch in some places, as I walked towards the hut. It was hard not to miss the humour in this situation and I had a good laugh.
The hut’s owner Abdul Nasir Buang, 53, from Kampung Tambirat felt guilty seeing me trying to pull my feet out each time my foot sunk into the mud, so I had to repeatedly reassure him not to worry because I didn’t mind getting my feet dirty.
After all, this was just a small adventure compared to getting set upon by leeches during my usual mountain hikes or waterfall hunts.
Upon arrival at the hut, I was amazed to see the equipment and tools Abdul Nasir used in his trade. With no electricity or gas supply, he relies on a simple wood fire to cook his gula apong.
Abdul Nasir started by giving a detailed explanation about processing techniques and the stages involved, from harvesting sap from the nipah palm tree (Nypa fruticans) to its eventual processing into gula apong using traditional methods.
According to him, gula apong is the sweet substance processed from the sap of the palm tree that grows naturally and abundantly in the mangrove forests along the coastal areas throughout Sarawak.
“The sap is usually harvested by making a cut on the flower stem to allow the sap to flow into bamboo containers. This is usually done in the evening and to be left overnight.
“In the morning, I will collect the containers and pour all the sap into a large pot. The sap is then boiled for six to eight hours with continuous stirring so it doesn’t burn, stopping only when the sap cooks into a a thick consistency,” Abdul Nasir said.
Traditional implements such as wooden containers and a clay stove with a wood fire as heat source are still in use in keeping with traditions. Hence, while stirring, Abdul Nasir must monitor the fire as well to ensure that it is not too big nor too small.
On good days, Abdul Nasir can harvest about 100 bamboo containers of sap to fill a large pot which will produce about 20 small plastic tubs of gula apong.
He sells the dark, sweet substance at RM5 per tub and gave his assurance that what he produces is pure palm sugar, with nothing else added.
I couldn’t help but recall that I paid RM100 per tub when I was living in Frankfurt!
In the past, gula apong was traditionally produced and utilised by residents of coastal villages where sugar was not easily available or expensive due to limited road accessibility.
Villagers use gula apong in drinks and food as a sweetener.
Nowadays, it is in high demand due to its versatility in food and beverage preparations such as teh-c-peng special, ice cream, ice kacang, and cendol. It is also widely used in various types of traditional kuih (cakes) namely onde-onde, selorot, penyaram, beras pulut and many more.
Not only that, gula apong is widely considered as a healthier alternative to refined sugar or artificial sweeteners because it is rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, sodium and zinc magnesium.
Another gula apong producer from the same village whom I managed to visit, Awang Bujang Awang Arup, 55, said he have been doing it for the past 30 years. He opined gula apong is an artisan product that requires passion and craftsmanship to make, as the process is very time consuming and labor intensive.
He followed in his late father’s footsteps into the trade as that was the only thing he knew how to do to earn a living.
“Nowadays, fewer and fewer people especially from the younger generation are willing to continue producing it. There is a possibility that it will diminish over time as other forms of sugar, honey and golden syrup are available, easier to produce and priced cheaper in the market.
“Although I’ve taught my children how to do it, and they regularly help me on weekends or school holidays, they don’t seem to be interested to continue the trade because the traditional method requires a lot of patience,” Awang Bujang said.
Apart from that, he said, nipah trees are depleting due to development, erosion and pests especially monkeys.
“I am not against development because we need it. However, as more land gets developed, we are also losing our mangrove forests. At the same time, wild animals such as monkeys lose their habitat so they start to move into our area.
“Many times, when I go to collect the bamboo containers, I found many of them thrown on the ground, emptied and crushed by the monkeys. When this happens, I end up producing less gula apong that day,” Awang Bujang said as he pointed to the opposite side of the river where he claimed that no one will collect nipah sap from there because of the large population of wild monkeys which live there.
After my visit, I pondered over Awang Bujang’s concerns as I leisurely drove across the scenic Samarahan bridge while chewing some gula apong cubes to satisfy my sweet tooth. — DayakDaily