A boiled aren nut is opened to reveal three sugar palm fruits, which are a key ingredient in the popular Ramadan snack known as kolak. (JP/Suherdjoko)
Those breaking their Ramadan fast with kolak (banana compote) will find white, opaque and thumb-sized fruit, locally called kolang-kaling, in the mix.
This fruit of the sugar palm tree is soft and a bit rubbery, and adds to the flavor of many sweet snacks and drinks.
Kolang-kaling, which can be made into candies of different flavors and colors, are 93.8 percent water, 0.69 percent protein, 4 percent carbohydrate, less than 1 percent of ash and about 1 percent roughage.
The carbohydrate level in kolang-kaling gives the eater a full feeling, offers a natural remedy for weight loss and improves digestion.
"I have no idea about their benefits or what they contain. All I know is that many people like this fruit and we are making a profit here from the sale of kolang-kaling," Gono, 55, a resident of Jatirejo village, Gunungpati district, Semarang, told The Jakarta Post.
Gono claimed he sold around 200 kilograms of kolang-kaling during the fasting month of Ramadan.
"Demand is high during Ramadan. The fruit has become a typical ingredient in food eaten when breaking the fast (kolak in particular). The price of the fruit almost doubles during Ramadan. At the moment it is Rp 5,000 (53 US cents) per kilogram, against the normal price of Rp 3,000," Gono said.
Working for a trader as a young man, Gono began selling sugar palm fruits in the Central Java capital of Semarang in 1975. At that time, kolang-koling was priced at Rp 7.5 per kilogram.
"My boss could export 10 tons per delivery to Singapore for sweets manufacturing," he recalled.
Gono now has his own business and employs six neighbors to peel and pound the kolang-kaling. The village has around 10 traders like Gono, each with six to ten workers on hand during the fasting month when the fruit become a good source of income for the locals.
"There are no aren (sugar palm) trees here. We have to buy from other areas such as Ambarawa, Somawono and Boja, where the trees grow on steep slopes. We usually buy the fruit in clusters, which cost Rp 50,000 each ... they are transported by truck to be boiled here," said Baekah, another trader in village.
One sugar palm nut contains one to three fruit; younger nuts are easier to process than mature ones. It takes 30 minutes to boil young nuts before they are ready for peeling: Older nuts take twice as long to boil, which requires more fuel.
Knives are used to peel the white, semi-transparent kolang-kaling fruit out of the nuts.
"Some are pounded until they are almost flat ... it all depends on costumers' orders, but the price is the same," Gono said.
The workers who peel and pound the fruit -- with wooden mallets and flat stones as their tools -- receive Rp 7,000 for every 20 kilograms produced.
"For me, this activity is just to fill my spare time during the fasting month. I have no work from morning to noon and start cooking only in the afternoon. So I have time to peel kolang-kaling," said Muslikhah, one of Gono's staff members.
Kolang-kaling come from aren or enau (Arenga pinnata) trees, which belong to the palm family which also includes coconut trees (Cocos nucifera L.), date palms (Phonex dactylifera), palmyra palms (Borassus flabellifer) and oil palms (Licuala arbuscula mogea).
Aren palms grow wild on steep slopes as well as on forest fringes. Those found in dry fields, or along road sides, are usually felled for sale as material for sago flour.
"We are opposed to sago flour makers because farmers are not replanting the sugar palms they cut down. This means we will face greater difficulties in obtaining kolang-kaling in the future," Gono said.
Farmers in Java use aren to make various products. Palm sugar made from kolang-kaling is sold at Rp 6,000 to 7,000 per kilogram, while the palms' fronds produce fibers which can be used in roofing and as septic tank filters.
Gono and Baekah both said they were often unable to keep up with the orders.
"We usually ask farmers to buy the processed fruit, at a price of Rp 5,000 per kilogram. We can make a profit if we boil the fruits once again. After two days' immersion in water, 50 kilograms of fruit can increase to 60 kilograms. That's our profit," Baekah added.
As noon draws near every day during the fasting month, the sound of mallets pounding flat stones to shape kolang-kaling can be heard throughout the village -- the unique musical rhythm of Ramadan in the area.