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Rumbia fruits are small in size, averaging 4 to 5 centimeters in diameter, and have a round, oval, to cordate shape, sometimes developing slightly irregular shoulders or angles, depending on how the fruit was situated on the tree and if it was pushed against branches during growth. The fruit's exterior husk is dense, hard, and rough, covered in textured triangular to diamond-like scales. The scales are right green to olive green when young and showcase brown-red edges. As the fruit ripens, the surface will become yellow-brown to straw-colored. Underneath the tough exterior, there is a thick flesh ranging in color from ivory, cream-colored with brown accents, to dark brown, depending on maturity. The flesh is spongy, starchy, and crisp, and depending on pollination, some fruits will be seedless while others contain a dark brown, hard seed. Rumbia fruits are traditionally consumed raw. Young fruits have a tart and astringent flavor, often said to be an acquired taste, and mature fruits develop sweeter nuances reminiscent of the texture and taste to some salak or snake fruit varieties.
Rumbia fruits are available periodically throughout the year in tropical climates.
Rumbia, botanically classified as Metroxylon sagu, is the fruit of a rare palm species belonging to the Arecaceae family. The small fruits grow in bunches between thorny branches and fronds of a large palm tree reaching 6 to 25 meters in height. The species is most internationally known as the Sago palm, and this species is notoriously slow growing, taking anywhere from 8 to 15 years to mature, sometimes as long as 20 years. Sago palms only flower and fruit once before becoming hollow and dying, and the most concentrated tree populations occur in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia. The fruits are commonly known as Buah Rumbia, Boh Meuria, Bak Mueria, Kirai fruit, and Salak Aceh in Indonesia, and are considered a delicacy, consumed fresh or incorporated into salads and pickles. Rumbia fruits are rare as most Sago palms are cut down before the trees produce fruits. Historically, Sago palms were more prevalent in the wild, and the fruits were harvested as needed, but over time, the palms have disappeared from natural landscapes and plantations due to their slow-growing nature. Sago palms are most famously grown for the starch contained in the trunk of the tree, and this starch is extracted and used for culinary purposes. In the modern day, the remaining Sago palms are primarily cultivated for their starches, and the fruits are never allowed to develop on the tree to retain the valuable starches within the trunk. Rumbia fruits have also disappeared from fresh markets as changing generational preferences are leading many ancient species to be lost. When available, Rumbia fruits are foraged from wild trees or purchased in fresh markets at premium prices.
Rumbia fruits are a source of fiber to regulate the digestive tract, calcium to build strong bones and teeth, potassium to balance fluid levels within the body, and vitamin C to strengthen the immune system. The fruits also provide vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning, iron to develop the protein hemoglobin for oxygen transport through the bloodstream, magnesium to control nerve functioning, and antioxidants to reduce inflammation and protect the cells against the damage caused by free radicals. In Indonesia, Rumbia fruits are consumed as a natural remedy for diarrhea. The fruits are also eaten as a source of carbohydrates for increased energy levels during workouts.
Rumbia fruits have a subtly astringent and sweet taste suited for raw preparations. The flavor of the fruits will vary depending on if it is being eaten young or mature, and more immature Rumbia fruits are said to be more of an acquired taste due to their tartness. Raw fruits can be sprinkled in salt for a more palatable taste, or they can be eaten with pliek'u, also known as patarana, a term for pressed and fermented coconut. Rumbia fruits can also be pickled by soaking whole fruits with the skin intact in salt water for a few days. In Indonesia, Rumbia fruits are popularly incorporated into rujak, a condiment or side dish comprised of chopped, crunchy ingredients mixed in a peanut, chili, and brown sugar seasoning. Rujak can be eaten on its own or paired with fish dishes. Rumbia fruits can also be sliced and fried into chips, added to various salads, or infused into marinades. In addition to savory preparations, Rumbia fruits can be soaked in palm sugar or white sugar for a sweeter taste. Beyond the fruits, Sago palms are famously used to make sago flour. The tree trunks are harvested for their starches just before flowering, and the trunks are cut open and washed several times to extract the starch. Sago palms are typically cut down after six years of age, and one tree can provide over 360 kilograms of dry starch, which can supply more than a year's worth of starch for one person. Sago flour is incorporated into bread, pancakes, noodles, crackers, and papeda, a glue-like paste made from starch and boiling water. The flour is also formed into pearls, which are combined with sugar and milk to make sago pudding. Rumbia fruits pair well with chile peppers, shrimp paste, fruits such as mango, papaya, apples, oranges, or grapefruits, cucumbers, brown sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind. Whole, unopened Rumbia fruits should be immediately consumed for the best quality and flavor.
In Indonesia, Sago palms were once deeply embedded into communities throughout the Aceh Province, especially in the West Aceh Regency on Sumatra Island. The palms are most famously used for their starches, but the fronds are also harvested and utilized in housing construction. The fronds are woven into thatched roofs that last several years, midribs are embedded into walls, and portions of the leaves are made into mats and baskets. Among children, Sago palm fronds were historically used to construct toy cars and boats. In addition to the fronds, the hard seeds within the fruits are a popular material for creating jewelry and rings.
Rumbia fruits grow on palms that are a part of Metroxylon sagu, a species thought to be native to Southeast Asia, specifically the Maluku Islands of Indonesia and the island of New Guinea. Scientists have discovered wild Sago palm species in New Guinea, and over time, the species was spread throughout Indonesia, naturalizing on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Sago palms were also introduced to other regions of Southeast Asia and thrived in humid, water-filled areas. The palms typically grow along riverbanks, swamps, and in shallow soils near water in tropical climates. The trees can grow close together to form dense barriers, especially along forest edges, and favor swampy clay soils. Sago palms were once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, but over time, much of the tree's natural habitat has been lost to deforestation and planting oil palms. Many trees were also swept away on the coast of Sumatra in the 2004 tsunami. Despite their disappearance, some Sago palms still reside in the wild, and growers are replanting the species for commercial production of sago flour. Today Sago palms are found throughout Southeast Asia and have significant populations within the West Aceh Regency in Meulabog, Peuribu, and the Arongan Lambalek District. The species was also introduced to tropical Africa and Central America in the late 20th century through a program directed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.