Although all coconut sugar is a type of palm sugar (coconut is a palm tree), not all palm sugar is coconut sugar. Most of the prized Southeast Asian palm sugar is crafted from the Asian Palmyra palm tree, Borassus flabellifer, whereas coconut sugar is from the Cocos nucifera, or coconut tree. Palm sugar is used in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. It’s used to a much lesser extent in Vietnam. Although coconut and palm sugars are made the same way and are used interchangeably by most cooks, Thai dessert specialists prefer coconut sugar for its more subtle taste.
Sap is extracted by cutting the flower buds at the top of the tree. Containers are strapped on and left to collect the sap. Shaved wood of the Shorea genus is left in the sap buckets to prevent souring. The day’s sap is combined with cane sugar of varying amounts—less cane sugar is considered better quality—and then the mixture is boiled down in large woks until it becomes an aromatic syrup. After cooling, it is either poured into jars to solidify (the Thai way—this version usually has a slightly fermented flavor), or it’s stirred vigorously until it crystallizes and is then spooned into large disk shapes (typical in Thailand and Vietnam). In Malaysia the sap is boiled at higher temperatures until it’s deep brown. It’s then poured into bamboo molds to make their signature cylindrical shape. If you’re ever fortunate enough to end up in a palm sugar–producing area, seek out a local dessert that’s sure to be offered: reduced sap served over shaved ice.
© 2008 Robert Danhi. All rights reserved.