April 14, 2022
Kampung Pinggan Jaya is situated on the outskirts of Kuching and is now easily accessible by road, as compared to the past when it could only be reached by boat. Surrounded by nipah palm trees (Nypa fruticans), the small village community has developed an expertise in harvesting the nipah sap to produce gula apong, a natural sweetener.
A means of earning full of uncertainties
A Saturday back in my hometown of Kuching offered the opportunity to visit a village nestled amidst mangrove and nipah swamps.
Being educated on the process of producing ‘Gula Apong ‘and to taste the natural sugar seemed a good idea, and that prompted a visit to the wetlands.
With a willing driver and excellent guide, Jacqueline Fong, Tanoti’s director and one of Sarawak’s inspiring entrepreneurs, to lead — we headed off.
Kampung Pinggan Jaya is situated on the outskirts of Kuching and is easily accessible by road now, as compared to the past when it could only be reached by boat.
Surrounded by nipah palm trees (Nypa fruticans) and of course the mangrove trees, the small village community has developed an expertise in harvesting the nipah sap to produce gula apong, a natural sweetener.
Produced traditionally and sold to middlemen to enhance flavours in local cuisines and used as an alternative sweetener, gula apong is helping to uplift living for low-income households.
One family we visited consists of a couple with 6 children. The head is 56-year-old Mahli Ramli, fondly known as Pak Mahli. His wife is Rohana Ros who is 41 years old. Together, they have five girls and one boy.
Their simple home which is sometimes hit by floods has an elevated section where they sleep, and their basic kitchen has an oven, kindly donated by Tanoti.
Pak Mahli’s main activity is to produce gula apong from the family’s nipah plantation. Rohana makes cakes and cookies, predominantly from the gula apong that her husband produces.
Life is not easy for this family with the small income to feed so many mouths. Yet the friendly couple bore smiles and took time to entertain us. While Rohana prepared the Kuih Penyaram using the gula apong harvested by Pak Mahli, we made our journey to the nipah swamp.
A foot bridge made of old uneven planks over a stream was the only means of entry to our destination. With my Nikon camera in tow, I was bound for some adventure with mud anyway, so with one deep breath and a good balancing act, this urban lady made it across.
A small hut with some firewood, a huge kuali and some essentials is just about all there is, while you are islanded by muddy grounds and the nipah palms.
Nipah palms grow in soft mud and slow-moving tidal and river waters that bring in nutrients. Strangely, the nipah palm’s trunk grows beneath the ground while the leaves and flower stalk grow upwards above the surface. The leaves can extend up to 30ft in height.
The flower produces woody nuts arranged in a globular cluster up to 10 inches across on a single stalk. A fruit cluster is ready to be tapped when the unripe fruits are at its sweetest.
The cluster is cut from the stalk about six inches down, and mud is rubbed on the stalk to induce sap flow. Sap will flow immediately if the maturity of the fruit is correctly gauged. A bamboo is fitted over the cut stalk and the sap is collected daily. Sap flow will continue for many days.
Approximately 500-700mls are collected from each matured stem every day. From a 10 acres nipah forest, the trees have the potential to generate up to 20kg of gula apong per day if the conditions are right. To harvest the sap of the nipah is no easy task. Wading through mud at least an ankle high and getting bites from mosquitoes are already challenging for me. Certainly, it is a tough life for Pak Mahli and other gula apong harvesters.
To make the gula apong takes hours. The sap is boiled and stirred until viscous and then left to cool. Golden brown in colour, it tastes sweet and slightly salty, due to the inherent salt content of the nipah palms.
According to Jacqueline Fong from Tanoti Foods, it is important that a lot of businesses who promote gula apong products (such as gula apong ice cream etc.) are also given due credit for the upstream processes and acknowledge the hardworking producers of gula apong.
“It is such a tough life — having to deal with unsavoury working conditions and being exposed to so many uncertainties like bad weather, changing environmental conditions, disease and pests such as the macaques coming in to attack their trees,” she stresses.
How did Fong discover this couple?
“Literally, I saw Pak Mahli walking into his farm while driving down the road in the village. We asked to visit his cooking area and started talking thereafter. A couple of days after that, I went to make some videos and take photos of his processes. This was back in April 2021,“she explained.
Today Tanoti Foods purchases their cakes and snacks. The best sellers are kek lapis, penyaram, mongkol and keretop. They do already have regular buyers who purchase their gula apong.
An ideal gift is the cake baked by Kak Rohana from Kampung Pinggan Jaya using fresh gula apong (palm sugar syrup) harvested and cooked by Pak Mahli. These cakes are made to order, and require a minimum of three days lead up time.