These are not exactly swaying coconut palms by a pristine beach. These are the ubiquitous nipah (attap) palms that thrive along the salty and muddy rivers of Sarawak. These were the palms that you see along the Rejang, the Sarikei and the Nyelong Rivers since you were born. You have always wondered what the heck is inside the dense jungles of nipah palms across the rivers. Well, the nipah palm produces plenty of food and natural materials for the resourceful locals.
It's a no brainer that the thatched attap houses of the old days use attap leaves. Attap leaves are used for basketry too. They were also tied to pillars of buildings as a unique Sarawakian decor to welcome VIPs in the old days till the late 70s but are seldom used nowadays.
Then there's the attap chee (nipah palm seeds in Hokkien) that are found in many desserts like chendol, ABC, etc. They are translucent, sweet, chewy and gelatinous. They come from the immature fruits of the nipah palm.
The nipah palm has a horizontal trunk that grows beneath the ground and only the leaves and its flower stalk grow upwards above the earth. Hmm, did you know this? In Burma, people use the trunk as a float in swimming lessons.
I took an educational visit to a stall in the row next to the Sarikei downtown bus terminal. The Cantonese husband and Foochow wife patiently explained some of the nipah palm products at their stall. The nipah plam's young shoot is actually edible. What does it taste like?
The popular attap thng (nipah palm sugar in Hokkien) is made from the sap of the nipah flower cluster before it blooms. In the Philippines, this sap is used to make an alcoholic beverage and vinegar. The petals can used to make herbal tea. On the islands of Roti and Savu, the sap is fed to pigs to impart a sweet taste to the pork. The fermented sap also has good potential as a biofuel.
The nipah palm can also be used to make salt rich in iodine. The salt is wrapped in leaves and grilled. I can not recall how the nipah palm produces the salt. Any idea?
And now for the trick question. Which of the above brooms are made from nipah and coconut palm leaves? The bottom two are the raw and dry stems of the nipah palm leaves. Nipah palms have longer fronds of leaves though they may be shorter than typical coconut trees.
Holy smoke! The rolled cigarettes that some people smoke around town actually use the dried nipah palm leaves for rolling the tobacco.
The next time you hold something in your palm (pun not intended), bear in mind that it may be one of the products of the humble nipah palms.
Watch this video (towards the last 15minutes)