Meditations

Palm (Sugar) Sunday


Palm sugar comes in small or large blocks. To use, shave it with a knife as you would chocolate.

Palm sugar comes in small or large blocks. To use, shave it with a knife as you would chocolate.

Sunday is my “May Wah” day. May Wah is an Asian grocery store I frequent as it has almost everything I need to alleviate my occasional homesickness. A few Sundays ago when I was there shopping for my Green Curry episode of Hot Thai Kitchen, palm sugar was on the list. As I picked up the jar, I realized that even though I had cooked with it all my life, I had never stopped to think about where palm sugar comes from or why we use it. I wanted to be able to talk about it on the show, so I did some research.

Cambodian woman demoes how to massage palm flowers, although this is normally done while the flowers are still attached to the tree top.

Cambodian woman demoes how to massage palm flowers, although this is normally done while the flowers are still attached to the tree top.

Palm sugar is made from the sap of the sugar palm tree. The sap is contained in the flowers or what we call the trunk (as in an elephant’s trunk) of the palm because of its shape. The production starts out with a massage…yes, I said massage. The flowers are massaged by a wooden tool that squeezes them like a clamp in order to activate the sap production. After getting a massage for 7 days, it gets a bath. The sugar maker climbs back up with a bamboo stalk filled with water (Mother Nature’s bucket!), and soaks each flower in it for 2 days.

The romance ends here—after massages and baths, the flowers are now slashed with a machete. They are then left alone all night to drain off their juices into bamboo buckets. These buckets, however, are special in that they contain small pieces of wood. The sugar makers have figured out over time that this particular kind of wood acts as a natural preservative and prevents the palm sap from spoiling. Isn’t it amazing what people can figure out without a science lab?

The juices are then consolidated into a huge wok and brought to a boil. After boiling, some of it gets bottled, chill, and then sold as one of the most delicious, fragrant and refreshing beverages I have ever consumed. The rest of the syrup continues to be reduced until it thickens and develops a butterscotch colour. It is then whipped with an enormous spring whisk and then poured into a mold to cool and solidify. Palm sugar can come in solid blocks of various sizes, or it can be reduced to a lesser degree and jarred while it is almost solid but still viscous. Coconut sugar can also be made by applying the same process to coconut palm, and it produces a similar result with subtle flavor differences. Palm sugar was the only sweetener in Thai cuisine until granulated sugar was introduced later by Western influences.

After reducing and caramelising the sap, the sugar is whipped with a spring whisk.

After reducing and caramelising the sap, the sugar is whipped with a spring whisk.

Folks, I’m serious when I say: it is sweetness at its best. The flavor is vaguely reminiscent of Werther’s Original Caramel. As you put it in your mouth it crumbles into fine crystals and melts immediately on your tongue, spreading its brown butter scent laced with a floral perfume into your olfactory receptors. When added to food it adds not just sweetness but also richness, aroma and body. It’s a foodie must-try.

Let’s start playing with it.  Try it in crème brûlée salad dressings, or your favorite jam and let me know how it goes.  Check out Hot Thai Kitchen for a green curry recipe that uses palm sugar, as well as Andrea’s recipe for Red Curry With Roasted Duck And Lychees.

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