The tao tan (palm sugar refinery) I stopped at in March wasn’t a large factory by any stretch of the imagination but it was cranking out batches you could never do in your kitchen. The day I was there they were portioning coconut palm batches out into metal five-gallon containers. Sad to say I didn’t make note of the name of the place – at least not in any of my notes that I can find – so let’s just call it The Plant for now. There were four people working that day, so it may well have been a family operation. There’s a string of five or six of them along Route 325 near Samut Songkhram, an area known for its higher-quality palm sugar.
As usual, it was a warm afternoon; the lack of a breeze didn’t help matters for those in the covered-but-open area, working with a furnace-type cooker and woks bubbling with steaming hot syrup, and everyone was sweating freely. The people working were making larger portions today: five gallons at a crack, poured into square metal cans.
Most of you have been told you don’t want to see the inside the kitchen of your favorite eatery, and that’s probably sound advice for most food processing places - this one included. While I didn’t observe insects or other vermin, let’s just say you can see by the photos there wasn’t a big Hobart dish washing machine huddled in the corner. You just can't think about it.
The juice (or sap) from the buds was poured into the large (nearly 3 feet in diameter) woks to about the half-full point and put over an opening in the brick furnace you see in the top image, being hand fueled from one end with scrap wood. The sap was then boiled for somewhere around 15 minutes to begin the reduction process. I never saw an instrument being used to test the mixture so my guess is it a process done so many times that it had become rote.
At some point white sugar was being added to today’s blend, and it was again allowed to boil; this time with a big woven cylinder sitting in the mixture, weighted down across the top edge with a board. You can see three of these in the top image behind the opening to the furnace, standing in a row like smokestacks, and again immediately above. The mixture boiled furiously now, forming a ring of foam around the outside of the bottomless “basket”, climbing up the inside like pasta needing a little oil added to the water.
The steam was almost too sweet smelling after a while, and reminded me of an afternoon at a cane sugar refinery I’d visited, far down into Mexico one summer long ago.
When it’s reached the desired viscosity the entire wok is transferred – carefully – onto a specially designed four-wheeled rack and moved away from the furnace. Anyone who has ever gotten molten sugar syrup onto bare skin knows precisely why: it sticks, and it’s hot enough to cook the skin beneath it while you’re trying to get it scraped off. I won’t go into how I know other than to say when I’ve making Christmas candies now I’m exceptionally careful.
Another collar is set into the pan, metal this time, and a beater that looks like a miniature version of one from a long-tailed boat is swung over and down into it. The mixture is then beaten as it cools, again to a specific look and consistency.
The worker then gives it a good stir, scraping the portions that have already begun to cool to a solid back into the molten mix and begins to pour it into the waiting five-gallon metal cans.
Once the can’s full and has begun to set it’s imprinted with a seal, somewhat like they used to seal a letter with in olden times. The cans were then being loaded into the back of a small pickup truck for delivery to the customer.
I wandered over to the retail area, maybe 30 feet from the furnace, the sweet smell of the sap still at full boil wafting along with me. There I saw small bags of the final product for home use; some in bits and pieces and some resembling small cow pies. Now being sure how well it would travel I didn’t buy any to take along, unfortunately.
Also on sale was an assortment of different candies and baked goods, some with samples out to try as is often the case in the markets there. Of the available samples I liked the little ทอฟฟี่โบราณ (“Old Style Toffee”) candies best. They were richly flavorful without being nearly as sweet as I’d expected, and I bought a number of bags of them to give to friends.
With a final glance around the place, partly to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and partly out of gratitude that I wasn’t working there and could get into my friend’s air conditioned car and be carried away, I did just that; popping one of the bags open and having just one more of those delicious sweets as we headed back out onto the highway, headed for home.