Have you ever wondered who it was that figured out that the wheat plant was fit for human consumption? Or that it had to be milled and leavened with yeast to make bread? Where would humanity be without toast?
Closer to home, and no less miraculous, was the moment when an indigenous tribesman, making his way through the mangrove forests, no other sound but that of his oar hitting the water, caught a glimpse of a snaky, shimmery object obscured by a tangled thicket of vicious thorns and, instead of registering danger and moving away, reached through the thorns with the thought, “Fruit!”
Everything about the salak tree (Salacca zalacca) and fruit screams, “keep away.” How desperate and resourceful must our ancestors have been to disregard every warning in pursuit of nourishment.
Salacca zalacca is native to Southeast Asia. The scientific name derives from its indigenous name. It belongs to the palm family and is a close cousin of the rattan—yes, the sort used in furniture.1
Interestingly, there’s a lot that the scientific world doesn’t understand about palms, including the Salacca. They are difficult to study by standard methods and are not designed for routine herbarium procedures. Carl Linnaeus himself knew palms chiefly by literature, not by handling specimens himself.2
What we do know about palms today comes mainly from nineteenth century studies by German botanist C.F.P. von Martinus. Salacca zalacca itself was named by two Dutch-German botanists who were mucking around in Bogor, Java, at this time.
While the scaly salak fruit is consumed everywhere in Southeast Asia, it is arguably in east Bali that the best varietals can be found. Here, in the old kingdom of Karangasem, an area especially fertile following the 1963 eruption of the nearby Gunung Agung, farmers have been cultivating salak for over four hundred years. More recently, they have begun to produce a salak wine, which fetches a better market price than the fruit alone.
In fact, if you ever find yourself in East Bali, the restaurant Bali Asli makes a mean salak cocktail, perfect for lingering over as you silently ponder the salak’s journey from the heart of darkness to your cocktail glass.