Tapping the Lontar Palm
The lontar palm is used by the Rotinese for just about everything. Its trunk is hewn for beams and posts; its branches are cut for walls and fences; its leaves cover their homes and are woven into baskets, water vessels, and even hats. The lontar also produces a small coconut whose water and fleshy interior may be drunk; however these fruits are often left to fall to the ground as pig feed. Perhaps the lontar's greatest gift, however, is nirah (properly spelled nire), a sweet and juice-like effluence, the staple "food" of many Rotinese even today.
Ambrosia of Eastern Indonesia
This nirah or "juice" of the lontar is slightly milky, sweet if fresh, and very filling. Call it nectar for humans. Surprisingly, you can drink volumes of it and have enough energy to carry you through the day. This quality, and the obvious carbohydrate value associated with such consumption, merits nirah-- a drink, oddly-- as a staple food. As the day wears on, nirah left out in the open will go sour-- a characteristic which will prove important when next month we examine local forms of moonshine. (Stay tuned!) But when drunk fresh, the taste is light, fresh, cool, sweet, and satisfying. Nothing else like it on Earth.
Nirah is taken from the lontar not from the bottom, like maple sap, but from the top. Nirah flows from the lontar's inflorescences ortangkai, a kind of phallic stem which sprouts in clusters from the treetop. As the tangkai are essentially gigantic flower parts, perhaps calling nirah "nectar" is as literal as it is descriptive.
Male lontar palms have several clusters of tangkai ending in blunt, tappable stems which the botanically inclined will recognize as rachillae; whereas the female trees devote more of their resources to producing coconuts. Consequently tappers prefer the male trees, as they can collect three times as much nirah from one climb up.
Although the lontar is found elsewhere in Indonesia, nirah is little known outside of the East-Southeastern Isles, commonly known in western literature as East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). California has certain palms which look suspiciously similar-- when I was on arid Catalina once I could have believed I was in NTT again. But a friend from Nigeria claims that the tree originated in Africa, a claim supported by local tales of settlers from Madagascar who brought the first specimens. The first time my friend tried it, the power of the ambrosia sent her into a sentimental ecstasy. (And it hadn't even fermented yet!)
Tapping the Lontar
A tapped lontar must be attended to daily to collect its nirah and to maintain the flow of nirah through the tangkai, a kind of phallic stem, essentially an overgrown pistil which sprouts in clusters from the treetop. Typically tappers will climb their trees twice a day, in the early morning and late afternoon.
Climbing these tall, slick trunks requires the strength and endurance of a rock climber-- and perhaps a bit more pluck, given that no safety devices are employed, and a fall is usually crippling. The tapper must also be careful not to spill his precious haik , a semicircular pail fashioned from a lontar leaf. To assist him, he has usually either cut notches in the trunk for footholds (as is the case here) or tied stones to the trunk. When he has reached the top, the tapper will grasp the thick, branch-like leaf stems and swing himself up into the crown of the tree.
Expert tappers often make the most of a climb by daringly crossing from one treetop to another before returning down with a full haik-bucket.
Collecting the Nirah
Nirah drips all day, and then all night, into a small haik attached to a collection of tangkai. The small haiks are by turns emptied into the tapper's large haik, cleaned, dried momentarily, and then rehung after the stems have been re-sliced to encourage the flow of nirah. The following series of photos, taken from up in a lontar's crown, documents the process in greater detail.
Check It Out Step by Step Fig 4. Here we see a small haik enclosing a tangkai cluster. The tangkai are tied tightly together with strips of lontar leaf.
Fig 5. The tapper gently removes the haik from the tangkai.
Fig 6. The large haik hangs nearby, filled with frothy white nirah. The uncovered cluster of tangkai hovers to the left.
Fig 7. Cleaning the haik. The tapper pours a cupful of water into the haik, and then sweeps it out with a frayed, brush-like lontar branch.
Fig 8. Drying. The tapper hangs the small haik upside down to dry overnight. To the right hangs a clean, dry haik which he will use to replace the one just removed. If the nirah is to be drunk fresh or boiled into sugar, the haik must be cleaned well; otherwise the tapper risks having his nirah go prematurely sour. In the foreground, notice the excellent detail of some uncut tangkai, somewhat resembling dried corncobs.
Figs 9-10. Slicing the tangkai. With a very sharp knife a centimeter or so is removed from each of the stems so as to reopen the wound.
Fig 11. Retying the haik. Using slices of lontar leaf for string, a dry haik is taken down and substituted for the one just emptied and cleaned.
Fig 12. Coming Down. On to the next tree, and don't spill that haik!
A look at local moonshine methods. Hope you have enjoyed your visit to Culture Corner and will visit again for another look at life in Eastern Indonesia!
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