Shortly after moving to Malaysia ten years (!) ago, Dave and I became obsessed with palm sugar. At first it was the attraction of the new. We'd lived in Thailand and had eaten Thai palm sugar, but gula Melaka -- the coconut palm sugar most common to Malaysia -- was so much ... MORE than any Thai palm sugar we'd ever tasted. More color, more smokiness, more butterscotch and caramel notes, more flavor ... more more more.
Back then Dave had a regular corporate job and I was a newbie food writer, working on our blog (which also celebrates its 10th anniversary shortly. Unbelievably.) and working up the nerve to begin pitching editors. Travel was dictated by holidays and Dave's vacation time, but it was travel independent of work, determined by where we wanted to go and what we wanted to eat, not by the success (or not) of a pitch.
So, we travelled for palm sugar. We went to Medan and found a guide and spent a morning with a Batak family of palm sugar makers, listening to tales of prayer before palm tapping and eating whole pumpkins cooked in bubbling palm sap. From there we drove further west into Sumatra and, one morning before dawn, tracked a palm tapper to his trees to see how he collected his sap. We travelled to Padang, and from there to Bukittingi where, in the market (is it still there? we haven't been since the big earthquake on Sumatra a few years ago) we found a stall selling more than 40 palm and cane sugars from 40 different villages. In Malaysia we drove south to Malacca and then from there to a village outside of Muar, where a palm sugar producer and his two (Sumatran) workers showed us how palm sap is boiled down and poured into bamboo molds to produce Malaysia's finest sweet (as far as I'm concerned, and I do eat it like candy). We flew to Sarawak, where we found liquefied palm sugar sold in plastic bags hung from nails in myriad sundry shops in Kuching, and delicious flower-shaped sweets soaked in the sugar syrup. We went to Bali, where in Munduk a tapper and palm sugar maker told us, after he'd poured his sap into the wide pan in which it would be boiled down to sugar syrup, that no one speaks to a tapper who's transporting his syrup from tree to pan because that will spoil the sugar.
What did we learn? That palm sugar is made from many palms. That palm sugars vary in taste and color according to palm, terroir and the skill and method of the sugar producer. That palm sugar can be smoky or sour or butterscotch or caramel-y, that it can taste floral or evince hints of coffee and chocolate. That it can be many of those things. That there is SO MUCH misinformation out there about palm sugar: that it's made from coconut milk or coconut water (it's not), that it's made by tapping the trunk of a palm tree (it's not), that it's made with or from white cane sugar (it shouldn't be, and if it is it is not palm sugar), that gula java = gula merah = gula aren = gula apong = gula Melaka (no, no, no, no).
After our discoveries we were so fired up about palm sugar that we carried dozens of pounds of the stuff to the USA, where we staged tastings in Chicago and San Francisco. Tasters were amazed, and enthusiastic. People really want to know about palm sugar! we thought.
Then I tried to pitch palm sugar stories. One editor told me that Americans who were just getting to grip with galangal couldn't be expected to wrap their minds around palm sugar. Another liked the idea, but the publication in question had run another sugar story in the preceding few years. Mostly, no publications were interested. And so we set our little palm sugar obsession aside, and moved on to other topics. (We kept eating palm sugar, though.)
Then, almost two years ago I was contacted by Darra Goldstein, for whom I'd written book reviews when she was Editor-in-chief of the food studies journal Gastronomica. She was commissioning entries for the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, and she wondered if I would write about -- TA DA! Palm Sugar. (I have no idea how Darra knew about me and palm sugar. I should ask.)
The volume was published this spring. Almost 15 years after palm sugar gripped my imagination my obsession had come full circle. (I was also chuffed to get the George Town bakery that makes the best coconut tarts in all of Asia listed in the book's Pastry Shops appendix.)
Of course, I'd still love to see a big palm sugar spread featuring Dave's gorgeous photos in a food glossy (are there any of those left? that pay real money?), but I'm honoured to have two entries (the other is on Asian Sticky Rice Sweets) in a formidable reference work like the Companion.
My editor at Oxford University Presss suggested that I reprint my palm sugar entry here, with an eye to drumming up sales for the book. (Note: I do not receive royalties from sales. I was paid in books for my contributions.) I am happy to oblige, at the very least to spread the gospel of palm sugar (The Real Story).
Do I need to tell you that, if you are at all interested in global food -- and especially sweets -- this volume NEEDS to be on your shelf? Let me titillate with a few entries, chosen at random: baba au rhum, child labor, cupcakes, fudge, golden syrup, the Good Humor Man, jelly beans, pudding, rasgulla, the American south, tres leches cake. I've been reading my copy in bits and pieces before bed. It's a lot of fun. Order yours here. And if you are travelling to southeast Asia -- save some luggage space for palm sugar!
Reprinted with permission from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Palm sugar is one of the world’s oldest sweeteners, distinguished from cane sugar in Singhalese chronicles dating from the first century b.c.e. It is produced and consumed across a swath of Asia stretching from the Philippines to India and Sri Lanka. For anyone accustomed to thinking of sugar as either white or brown and just plain sweet, palm sugar is surprising in its complexity, ranging in color from pale yellow to almost black and with a flavor that, in addition to sweet, can be salty, sour, bitter, smoky, or any combination thereof.
Palm sugar is produced by boiling sap collected from the cut inflorescence of many palm varieties, including palmyra (Borassus flabellifer), coconut (Cocos nucifera), kithul or fishtale (Caryota urens), date (Phoenix dactylifera), silver date (Phoenix sylvestrus), aren (Arenga pinnata), and nipa (Nypa fruticans) palms. Prior to cutting, the inflorescence is softened by beating with a stick or mallet to initiate the flow of sap. The sap is captured in tubes suspended beneath the cut inflorescence and collected twice a day; tappers often add a fermentation prohibitor such as lime, calcium carbonate, or tannic bark. Some tappers and sugar makers (often one and the same individual) include a ritual as part of the sap collection process. On northern Sumatra, ethnic Batak, most of whom are Christian, request permission from God before collecting sap. On Bali, it is believed that if the tapper speaks with or is spoken to by anyone while transferring collected sap to the pan where it is to be boiled, the sugar will become spoiled.
Once collected, the sap is reduced by evaporation, boiled and stirred for several hours in large, uncovered cauldrons. During boiling, some makers add ingredients to alter the color of their sugar; for example, Batak add the spongy reddish fiber that lines the inside of mangosteen peels to make their product darker. Once the sap has been sufficiently reduced, usually to a viscosity somewhere between the soft- and hard-ball candy stage, it is poured into molds made from coconut halves, bamboo tubes, strips of rattan joined to form a circle, and other materials, and left to cool and solidify. See stages of sugar syrup. In southern Thailand, the sugar is whipped with large whisks until it is stiff, then formed without the use of molds into lumps or swirl-topped mounds and left to dry. In Sarawak and Sabah states on Malaysian Borneo and on Sri Lanka, the sugar is taken from the fire when still liquid, allowed to cool, and then poured into jars, tubs, or bags.
In local languages palm sugar might be named for its color (gula merah or “red sugar” in Indonesia); its traditional provenance (gula jawa in Indonesia, gula Melaka in Malaysia); the variety of palm from which it is made (gula nipa and gula aren in Indonesia, gula apong or “floating sugar” on Malaysian Borneo, in reference to the nipa palm, which grows in water); or the sugar-making process (pakaskas in the Philippines from kaskasin, which refers to the process of “scraping” the sugar from the boiling sap). Palm sugar is duong thot not in Vietnamese and scor thnout in Khmer. In India, it is called gur or, confusingly, date sugar (whether or not it is made from date palms) or jaggery, a word that also refers to dark brown cane sugar.
No matter which palm it is made from, palm sugar has a lower glycemic index and is less sweet than cane sugar. The palm sap that becomes sugar has also long been used to make intoxicating toddy and distilled arak, as well as vinegar. Palm sugar is an ingredient in a staggering variety of sweet and savory foods, from Thai somtam (green papaya salad) to innumerable Indian sweets.
Grimwood, Brian E. Coconut Palm Products: Their Processing in Developing Countries. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1975.
Moody, Sophy. The Palm Tree. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1864.