You’ve likely heard of gula aren or gula melaka, but have you heard of gula apong?
If you haven’t, you’re not alone. Siblings Ellyna, Emylia, and Eirwan Merican had never heard of it until they chanced upon it in Kuching, Sarawak in 2019.
At a bus stop shop, they experienced gula apong ice cream and boba the first time, discovering its unique taste and versatility.
While gula melaka is made from the sap of palm trees, gula apong is specifically made from nipa palm trees that grow abundantly in mangrove forests along Sarawak’s coast.
Furthermore, its coastal origins mean that gula apong carries a salty flavour.
Inspired, the trio started selling gula apong ice cream back in West Malaysia. According to Ellyna, the neighbourhood parlour was such a hit even at the height of the pandemic that the siblings realised they could take it further to accomplish their lifelong dream of opening their own cafe.
With Ellyna’s background as a corporate event marketer, Emylia as an auditor, and Eirwan as a business, banking, and finance university student, none of them had any experience in F&B.
“We were all just doing our own thing back then,” Ellyna said. “Each of us acquired some form of entrepreneurship experience at different stages of our lives—selling a myriad of products from clothes, to homemade kefir, to books, to gadgets, to skin care products.”
Despite not having F&B experience, each of them brings their own skillset to the table. Emylia focuses on the finance and operational side, while Eirwan deals with technical matters and business development. Meanwhile, Ellyna focuses on the “people” side of things.
Their parents also chip in as expert advisors, overseeing their work and cheering them on.
“Running this business as a family has its set of challenges,” Ellyna admitted. “But little did we notice, this business has bonded us even more as a family than before.”
In the beginning, the siblings’ plan was to sell only ice cream, and perhaps a selection of French pastries and cakes.
However, after several rounds of market surveys, the three realised how “crazy over coffee” people are.
“We wouldn’t have known this reality until we asked around for opinions,” Ellyna said. “I personally was never a fan of coffee. I’ve always preferred tea over coffee.”
But regardless of personal preference, she saw the value in expanding their reach to serve those coffee enthusiasts.
Fortunately, her sister, Emylia, used to work as a barista at Starbucks and knew a thing or two about espresso-based drinks. Through courses, they learnt about the origins of beans, used espresso machines, and picked up the skill of latte art.
“We sought help from a local roastery to help us devise our gula apong-based drinks,” Ellyna explained. “Soon after, Oh Apong’s iconic drink, the Apong Coffee Latte, was born.”
And while they were at it, they thought they might as well cater to non-coffee drinkers too. They explored a variety of beverages and eventually looked into other cakes and pastries.
“Instead of focusing on ice cream, we aim to be a gula apong speciality store that serves a variety of gula apong delicacies including speciality coffee, cookies, granola, choux au craquelin, mini bundt cake, and kaya spread,” Ellyna said.
According to Ellyna, many of these menu items have either yet to be invented or popularised, thus giving Oh Apong the first-mover advantage and an edge above other apong brands.
This includes brands like Mokti’s and Q Ice Cream. While each has its forte, Oh Apong’s is its variety of offerings. But when it comes down to the ice cream, Ellyna shared that Oh Apong has its own ice cream powder recipe, so customers won’t find the same formulation elsewhere.
“Not all our dishes incorporate gula apong at the moment, but it’s in the pipeline,” the co-founder said. “It’s transitioning from just serving pastries and cakes to accompany our gula apong coffee and ice cream to progressively adding more gula apong food items that best define Oh Apong.”
Although apong isn’t as popular in West Malaysia, it’s extensively used over in East Malaysia. Beyond desserts like cendol and cakes, Ellyna shared that it’s even used for chicken wings.
“It’s a must-have ingredient in every Sarawakian household,” she shared. “While it’s being widely used in East Malaysia, the knowledge of its benefits has not fully penetrated West Malaysia I guess.”
Another explanation, she suggested, could be that West Malaysians are already too comfortable with gula melaka. Plus, gula apong is pricier on the peninsula due to the shipping costs.
“But I’m starting to see a significant shift in today’s more inquisitive generation,” Ellyna pointed out.
The process of harvesting gula apong is a time-consuming and risky practice as local farmers need to search swampy marshlands for suitable nipa palms and nurture them. Dangers include snakes, crocodiles, and even wild monkey encounters, according to Ellyna.
Oh Apong works with partners in Sarawak who deal directly with the farmers. A key issue the siblings faced as they started out was their lack of understanding of the gula apong ecosystem.
“We had to fly to Sarawak just to restock our gula apong, buying from various roadside vendors because our supplier could not secure the stock come the monsoon season,” Ellyna said.
“We learnt the hard way that the supply of gula apong during the monsoon season (when the water level rises) becomes extremely scarce, so the prices of gula apong went through the roof!”
Another factor challenging supply is overfarming of the nipa tree palms. Developments, erosion, and pests are also factors of depletion.
On the bright side, according to Ellyna, Sarawak’s government and the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) aim to strengthen the potential of gula apong to enter a wider market.
Through their gula apong purchases, the team aims to elevate the traditional Sarawakian artisanal product. They also hope to improve the livelihoods of the local community of gula apong makers and collectors by providing a sustainable income to them.
“It’s our way of celebrating our local unsung heroes, in good times and tough times alike,” Ellyna said.
A sweet outlook
Today, Oh Apong has a few varying concepts with its outlets, ranging from a café to kiosks.
The siblings plan to expand this way so that each outlet aptly serves its purpose, suitable to the location where it operates.
“We did not want to expand too rapidly as maintaining the quality of our products and service has always been our utmost priority,” Ellyna shared.
Beyond pushing for Oh Apong to do well, Ellyna and her siblings seem to care about the entire apong industry at large, sharing that they’d like to see the ingredient on the global food stage one day.
To do this, they’d need to look into licensing and subsequently franchising the brand, though lots of cautious planning will take place before that.
Other than expansion, Oh Apong is planning to also introduce gula apong-based merchandise that includes nectar, cookies, granola, and kaya in the near future.
The co-founder shared that they’ve recently visited a pineapple farm in Kajang, Saudagar Nanas. Ellyna had taken notice of the “quaint little shop” within the farm that sells everything pineapple from fresh fruit to pineapple-based coffee and snacks.
“I imagined what if a similar concept is applied to nipa palm?” she wondered. “Selling gula apong dishes and merchandise, with guided tours to demonstrate the process of traditionally harvesting, processing, cooking, and packing gula apong. It’s gonna be a hit for sure!”
“Not to mention, this will be a huge step in preserving this disappearing trade for future generations.”
Featured Image Credit: Oh Apong