In Indonesia the Lontar tree (Borassus flabellifer) grows on the east side of Java Island, Madura, Bali and East Nusa Tenggara. In North Bali, in particular in Sambirenteng Village, the lontar tree is known to grow naturally and has never been considered by locals for further commercialization. The lontar tree is also well known as a source of various drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The lontar tree is also used to make vinegar: cuka lontar. The vinegar is made directly from lontar tree sap, using fermentation processes and traditional techniques.
Local artisans gather the sap twice a day and place it in ceramic pots known as gentong keramik where it is further fermented. It is then stored for eight months in the shade, before it becomes vinegar. The next process is to filter the cuka lontar, before using or bottling. The vinegar has a characteristic sour aroma and taste, with pale to medium yellow color. It is also commonly used as a seasoning for local dishes to enrich flavors and as a natural preservative.
Lontar vinegar was initially also used to make local alcoholic beverages and energy drinks. Lontar vinegar is commonly found in the areas of Desa Sambireteng, Buleleng and Bali. According to the latest data, there are fewer than ten artisans that are still trying to preserve the old fashioned way of producing lontar vinegar using their ancestors’ techniques. In 2014 in Sambirenteng village just five families were producing this vinegar. One family had nine of the traditional ceramic pots (averaging 40 liters per container), while the others had two or even none in some cases.
Cuka lontar is sold in very limited quantities, and also kept for personal use by the producers. It risks being lost because of the long production time and the alternative of other types of vinegar that can be made in just a few days or purchased industrially-made vinegars. The tools used in making cuka lontar (the gentong keramik pots) are rarely used, and fewer people make their living by tapping the sap of the trees. Furthermore, lontar trees are not specifically protected or cared for, and their ecosystem is under threat.