September 2017

ArticlesJamming with Jamlady

Salak or Snakefruit: The star of Bali’s farmers markets

Bali
Rama Beach Resort and Villas
Rama Beach Resort and Villas

The first morning in Bali began with a huge breakfast buffet at the Rama Beach Resort and Villas, in Kuta. My son Tim and I had chosen the best resort and the right location for our primary goal of eating and photographing Balinese fruits. This resort is proximate to shops, the airport and main roads to the various farming and market areas. As a plus, it also has huge swimming pool complete with a well-stocked bar, serving special bogo fruit drinks at happy hour. The breakfast buffet offered all sorts of local and international cuisine, but most noticeably beautiful platters of tropical fruits: papaya, pineapple, jackfruit, dragon fruit, melons, lychees, bananas, mango, pomegranates and many other tropical fruits that most readers would probably have previously sampled.

Salak plantations are dense with vegetation and thorns, lots of thorns
Salak plantations are dense with vegetation and thorns, lots of thorns

But then, there also was a huge bowl of snakeskin-like fruits called salak or snakefruit! These cobra-skinned fruits were not peeled, but served as hand fruit. Asian travelers and locals were taking them, but Americans, Australians, and Europeans were passing them over without so much as even looking to see what they were. Having done my homework, I knew what they were and was eager to eat some, so I piled several on my plate. Suddenly, those around me were alarmed. “Are you going to eat those?” My response was “Most certainly! How about you? Want one?” Nobody wanted one. They didn’t even know what they were or that these toughly clad fruits were as common in Bali as apples in the U.S. They had an opportunity to try something new, but they did not even want to try them! I was disappointed. If the grade school teacher in me had emerged, I would have coaxed them, but I was on vacation, so their loss!

Salak fruit cluster protrudes from trunk
Salak fruit cluster protrudes from trunk

At my table, I peeled, sliced, and tasted a salak fruit which looked like a jumbo, peeled garlic and tasted similar to pineapples and lemons or banana. It was deliciously sweet, firm and slightly astringent! One fruit was slightly crunchier than the other, but both were quite acceptable. I wished I had brought my juicing machine along; these fruits would have made a terrific juice ingredient for cocktails. So, I grabbed more to eat in my room and at the pool. Our waitress, who was very friendly, commented that salak could be cooked into jam, stuffed raw into dates, or fried into chips, but that most islanders just ate them out of hand. Salak is a healthy fruit; it has lots of vitamin B2 and C in addition to iron, calcium, and phosphorus and also provides some protein, fat and fiber. Some locals told me that salak is good for problems of the digestive tract.

Vendor opening a salak for photo shot
Vendor opening a salak for photo shot

To see Bali Salak or Salacca edulis (syn. Salacca zalacca) growing in Bali, one must go to the villages of Sibetan, Nongan and Batusesa which lie in areas near Candidasa Beach and the Besakih Temple. We hired a car whose driver was familiar with the area, which enabled us to take photos of small-sized salak plantations and see plants fruiting in their natural state. We did not walk through the imposing and dangerous ground area a round each palm plant, due to the barbs that had fallen everywhere. We were cautioned that injury from these plants was common, and that farmers were especially trained to harvest the fruits.

 

 

Salak peeled with single seed exposed
Salak peeled with single seed exposed

Salak fruit is conical in shape and covered with hard, medium-brown, triangular scales with thorns, giving the appearance of snake skin. It has scrumptious white flesh consisting of three lobes enclosing a single seed. When ripe, the thorns on the fruit come off and the color fades from brown to light brown or yellow; the fragrance also indicates the state of ripeness. Clusters of 10- 20 fruits (typically 2 to 3 clumps per tree) are found in the lower part of the plant, attached to a very short trunk; the leaves shoot up like spears arranged around an upside-down cone. Salak is an indigenous fruit in Indonesia; at least 30 cultivars are known and cultivated. Salak also grows in Thailand and has been introduced in New Guinea, the Philippines, Queensland and North Territory of Australia, Ponape Island, China, Surinam, Spain and the Fiji Islands.

Salak sold at Gianyar Central Market, north and east of Kuta
Salak sold at Gianyar Central Market, north and east of Kuta

The farmers we met stated S. edulis need to be grown in highland conditions (700- 1,000 feet above sea level) with adequate sunshine and warm ambient temperatures between 18-25°C (64-77°F). Terracing the salak crop in the same way as the interspersed rice fields is also desirable, as good water and wind circulation is essential for this plant to thrive. It takes about 4-5 years to create a fruiting plantation. The best harvests are during the rainy season of January and February, but fruits can be found from December to April. We saw varying sizes of the clusters in both fruit size (3-6 cm in diameter) and weight being sold at the markets and by fruit vendors stationed along the main roads. Most of the plantations we saw were small operations with the farmers selling their produce in markets or at roadside stands. We were told locals make salak into wine and use the smaller fruits for juice. Salak fruit can last up to two weeks without refrigeration, a little longer if refrigerated or frozen. While some fruits are shipped to Singapore and other locations in Indonesia, the demand for high-quality fruits exceeds the production. Much of the fruit is consumed locally.

View along the road where rice paddies are alternated with salak plantations
View along the road where rice paddies are alternated with salak plantations

There are two other well-known types of salak found in Bali besides S. edulis. These are Salak pondoh (sic), known for its intense aroma, and Salak manojaya (sic). Salak pondoh is typically grown around the city of Yogyakarta in Java, about an hour from Bali by air, although one can go overland and by ferry between the two locations. There are several excellent variations of Salak pondoh: pondoh super, pondoh hitam (black pandoh), and pondoh gading (yellowish-skinned pondoh). Salak manojaya is grown in the Manonjaya district of Central Java. A famous and expensive variety of salak grown in Bali is called the white sugar salak, Salak gula pasir (sic); we saw it growing in the area from Sibetan Village to Rendang village where the elevations are ideal (800-1,000 feet above sea level). The term gula pasir literally means “sand sugar.” This variety is the sweetest of the salaks, and has a fine granularity to its texture. Other conditions in this area such as the fertile soil (from the 1963 eruption of Mt. Agung) and good wind circulation help to produce superior salak crops.

It appears that worldwide production of salak is increasing as demand grows. However, the future of salak appearing in stores in North America anytime soon is doubtful. More areas in the world will need to produce the fruit, and better methods of quickly getting them to the point of sale will be needed. At this point, it appears that locations near Bali and Indonesia already want salak fruit and that demand alone can’t be met. Only time will tell, but it is unlikely that many Americans are ready to eat this fruit. So when in Bali or Indonesia, please do try this delicious fruit. Then spread the word.