Saturday, May 29, 2010

Palm Sugar: The Overview

Although you’ll see refined white sugar on your table in the hotel and many restaurants in Thailand, what you might well see used back in the kitchen for curries and other dishes is palm sugar. It’s called several names there: nam taan pep, nam taan mapraow and nam taan bik, depending on the type of palm it’s made from. It’s widely used throughout Asia, including Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations, like the Philippines.

Palm sugar is more the color of what we’d refer to in the West as brown sugar, or perhaps raw cane sugar. The flavor is much like brown sugar, too; although it doesn’t have the sharp aftertaste that brown cane sugar has. The flavor is much richer and warmer toned than its cane counterpart so it’s ideal for desserts, which is a common usage for it there.

It varies from a light tan to a deep golden brown, and can be in granular or syrup form, but is found more often in “soft but firm” or firm form; some being as hard as the over-sized hockey puck it sometimes resembles. My guess is that it depends on a variety of factors: the type of palm sap, the cooking time for the batch and the amount of refined sugar or other additives in the mix (if any). Overall it melts faster in cooking and has a high tolerance to heat before it scorches.

It’s gaining in popularity outside of Asia not only because of its taste in dishes but because of its very low glycemic (and high nutritional) values, making it a healthier choice for diabetics. I expect that as more and more of the baby boomers reach the “Type 2” stage – and we are en mass, after decades of junk food and Super Sizing – that alternatives like palm sugar will become much more readily available to the burgeoning market.

My friend said details of the manufacturing process varies from maker to maker, but the small outfit he took me to were also adding refined white sugar to the batches they were making that day. You have to carefully check labels, and that’s a challenge if you want to avoid all white processed sugar and don’t read Thai.

The harvesting procedure varies by variety, too, but they all involve slitting or cutting the sides or end off of the clusters of bud or buds of the palm and then collecting the sap in a container hanging on or below it. The first thing that came to mind when I saw the cylindrical tubes hanging in the tree were the buckets you’d see collecting maple tree or rubber tree sap. You’ll see photos of Thailand rubber trees in another post down the line.

Once the sap has been collected it’s processed; sometimes at home, sometimes in larger plants. Tomorrow we’ll go through the process I watched and photographed at a small plant southwest of Bangkok.

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