Sarawak’s famous gula apong or nipa palm sugar is a type of sugar that comes from the nipa palm tree (Nypa fruticans), which grows abundantly in the coastal areas of Sarawak. The sugar can be easily distinguished by its golden caramel colour (and in some cases dark reddish brown) and natural sweet taste that is said to be less intense than white or brown sugar.
photo source: harizamrry.com
Gula apong is produced from the sap of nipa palm tree that is extracted by making a cut on the flower bud of the tree. The collected sap will be boiled and stirred for six to eight hours to allow the liquid to evaporate, leaving behind a thick caramel. The caramel is then left to cool down and stored for packaging. In this art of making palm sugar, boiling time plays an important role. The longer the palm sap is boiled, the darker and richer the sugar becomes. Depending on how the sugar is processed, the end product can range from pale brown to almost black. In terms of consistency, gula apong can be soft and crumbly or hard. Approximately one kilogramme of palm sugar can be produced from 10 litres of sap.
In the past, palm sugar was widely produced and used in coastal villages of Sarawak, where nipa palm trees grew abundantly. The villagers used palm sugar as sweeteners for their food and drinks instead of white sugar as the latter was more expensive and difficult to come by due to limited road access into the villages. However, as time went by and roads were built leading into the coastal areas, white sugar began to replace palm sugar. Today, it is produced on demand by small scale producers in small towns across Sarawak.
Palm sugar is considered to be healthier than white and brown sugar as it is an unrefined sugar, meaning it is richer in vitamins and minerals, making it more popular among households these days. It is also a natural sugar as no chemicals are used, and gula apong requires minimal processing. In stores, gula apong is normally available in blocks or liquid form.
Some traditional products that use gula apong are the Iban penganan iri, sarang semut and kuih ros, all of which are still in demand and can be found in coastal towns. Other than that, it is also used in making curries, sauces, syrups, spreads, desserts and even ice-creams and puddings.
These days, palm sugar is seen as an artisanal product that requires patience, passion and craftsmanship to produce.