Pahangga, Gorontalo Artisanal Palm Sugar

Posted by OmarTarakiNiodeFoundation
14 May 2017 | blogpost

The Province of Gorontalo, on the K-shaped island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, is situated on The Wallacea, a transition zone between the Oriental and Australian regions.

Traditional Sweetener

Most traditional snacks in Gorontalo are made of corn, cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, rice, and rice flour, with palm sugar, called pahangga, as the main sweetener. There are more than 30 snacks identified, with some of the most popular are dumalo (weaved sweet potato and pahangga), kokole (corn pudding with pahangga), hungololoyo (grated cassava, grated coconut, and pahangga), tobu’u (boat shaped custard with pahangga in pandan leaves), and biyapo (steamed bun filled with grated coconut and pahangga). Using pahangga in Gorontalo traditional snacks dates back to hundreds of years ago when refined sugar was unknown and has not influenced human dietary habits.

Bordering Sulawesi Sea and the Philippines to the North and Tomini Bay and Molucca Sea to the South, Gorontalo is an area with scenic landscapes, such as lake, rivers, beaches, diving spots, hills, rice fields, and forests.

According to the World Agroforestry Centre, sugar palm tree originates in Southeast Asia, specifically in tropical rainforest and dry forest. Usually it grows close to human settlements where propagation plays a major role. Otherwise it prefers secondary forest at the border of primary rainforests.

Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, described and illustrated the tree on the Celebes chapter of his book published in 1869,  The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and natureThe forest which surrounded me was open and free from underwood, consisting of large trees, widely scattered with a great quantity of palm-trees (Arenga saccharifera), from which palm wine and sugar are made.


Pahangga Processing

Sugar palm trees in Gorontalo are mostly uncultivated and scattered in remote areas of the province. Farmers live and work near palm trees to produce pahangga. The acknowledged Latin name of sugar palm is Arenga pinnata, although it has a number of synonyms, including Arenga saccharifera. As a solitary feather palm, it is known as the golden tree due to its products for food, apiculture, fuel, fiber, timber, alcohol, insect repellent, and medicine.

However, only recently do consumers learn about the health benefits of palm sugar, such as its low gycemic index, nutients and vitamins content.

The well-known food and drink products from Arenga pinnata are palm sugar (solid and powder), palm wine, nata pinnata, sugar palm fruits, vinegar, and palm flour. Individual farmers in Gorontalo tap sugar palm sap from male blossoms near the top of the trees twice a day and let the liquid flow into a bamboo rod. The sap is cooked using large wok on a traditional fire stove. The liquid is boiled for 6 hours, and stirred until thickened (caramelized) with added coconut fibers as food coloring.

The concentrate is then poured into half coconut shells cast and left to solidify into palm sugar lumps. Artisans then stack two solid palm sugar lumps and wrap them in dried woka (fan palm) leaves. It requires skills to wrap the pahangga that in its final stage has a shape like diamond.

Pahangga for Livelihoods

Pahangga, although darker, is not as sweet as palm sugars from other parts of Indonesia. It has a touch of saltiness and known as an energy booster. Legend has it that pahangga has been around in Gorontalo since the fifteenth century. It is regularly consumed by royal guards before performing their duties.

The diamond shape of pahangga, is always present in ornaments and decorations in Gorontalo life rituals such as baby showers, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.

In recent years, some pahangga artisans are having a hard time maintaining their livelihoods as palm oil companies and illegal loggers lured them into abandoning pahangga trades for more profitable work albeit sacrificing the environment. Fair trade is also difficut to achive as middlemen visit pahangga artisans who usually live in remote areas, buy pahangga in large amount and sell them in town with huge profits.

As sugar palm trees and pahangga play an important role in the life of people in Gorontalo, losing pahangga is like losing an element of civilization on The Wallacea.