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The Sweetest of Rivals

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Palm sugar is a unique and versatile ingredient. While often found in Asian desserts, it’s increasingly a popular choice for savoury dishes or as an addition to broths in main courses.

This natural sweetener is derived from palm trees and is sometimes known as coconut palm sugar. Different varieties of palms can be used to create palm sugar of varying textures but all go through similar extraction processes. Manufacturers usually process the sugar palm juice into three types of sugar: syrup, block sugar and crystalline palm sugar.

In India or Southeast Asia, it’s common to harvest sticky palm juice or sugar-rich sap from the nipah palm or sugar palm. Another popular source in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia is the coconut palm, which sees farmers harvest the sap from the tree’s flowers.

Of the many varieties of palm sugar available in Southeast Asia alone, among the most popular for chefs and home cooks are gula nipah, gula enau and gula melaka.

Sugar rivalry

In his book Malacca Reminiscences, Andrew Loh explains that gula melaka is made by first drawing the sap from the flower bud of a coconut tree. This substance is poured into bamboo tubes of 7 centimetres to 13cm in length and left to harden into cake blocks.

A rival to gula melaka, gula enau is more commonly used in the neighbouring state of Negeri Sembilan. It’s made using similar methods: producers draw the palm juice from the enau tree, which is sometimes known as the nipah palm. This may be slightly confusing as there is another type of sugar known as gula nipah, which is actually derived from the mangrove palm.

Traditional producers use a rather unconventional method to extract more sugar from the enau palm. They tap twice on the top and bottom of the fruit bunches (known as tandan) in order to encourage more sap, which they describe as coaxing or persuading.

Are these sugars good for you?

Some research points out that palm sugar as unrefined sugars are better for health due to its relatively low glycemic index, which can sometimes be as low as 35 compared to a typical score of 100 for refined sugar.

With low fructose levels, palm sugar does not have the unpleasant aftertaste of some other unrefined sugars. It’s a trait that palm sugar shares with agave sugar.

Research by the Philippines-based Food and Nutrition Research Institute shows that palm sugar contains important minerals such as zinc, calcium, potassium and iron. But the quantities are small: researchers say that you would need to consume close to 30 teaspoons of palm sugar to get just 2 milligrams each of these nutrients. You could get the equivalent amount by consuming about 180 grams of roast chicken.

Still, every little bit helps. By the standards of sweeteners, palm sugar is relatively healthy – provided it is consumed in moderation.

Taste test

The deep colour of palm sugar gives a rich and decadent finish to most desserts and is also highly regarded due to its caramel-like, butterscotch nature. Cooks may prefer to use it not only for its low glycemic reading but also to simply have a less sweet taste.

Compared to refined white sugar, palm sugar has less sucrose as well. Sometimes when eating ordinary brown sugar you may come across a metallic flavour as an aftertaste, which you don’t when tasting palm sugar.

Use it in desserts as a drizzle or sweetener, or find that its earthy aroma and deep flavours are delicious for meat marinades where you create a sweet and sticky mess.

You can also pair it with citruses such as pomelo, lime or kumquats, but probably not interchangeably with brown sugar due to the varying acidity and moisture.

The palm sugar blocks are rock hard, so use a grater to shave off the desired amount for your dish. Some recipes recommend a quick zap in the microwave with a tablespoon of warm water to help melt larger amounts of the sugar.

Have a go at these recipes using your favourite palm sugar, but be careful of sticky fingers as you prepare a marinade for spicy chicken wings or work them with prawns and cured salmon.

Another way to make use of this natural sweetener is by adding it to your favourite base stock. If you are after traditional dishes, try your hand at this recipe for rice and lentil pudding.

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