When you’re in Vietnam at a wet market, check out the sugar. There are piles of different kinds in various shades, from mahogany and caramel brown, to yellow to cream to white to clear. Some are in crystals whereas some are hard and have to be scraped and poked at with a knife. The photo on the right is from Saigon's Cho Lon market.
I’m not a sugar expert but Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt got me thinking about palm sugar – a small obsession of hers (read: an understatement!). She and her husband David Hagerman live in Malaysia and wherever they go in Southeast Asia, they look for artisanal palm sugar. She and Dave brought some to the U.S. for a recent tasting and I was the beneficiary of the leftovers!
What is palm sugar? In Vietnamese, đường means sugar. Palm sugar, called đường thốt nốt, is the boiled down sap gathered from the cut buds of sago or coconut palm trees; it may also be called đường tán. In the Vietnamese repertoire, đường cát trắng literally means “white sand sugar” and is the refined sugar that we know in the West. Đường phèn is crystal-like rock sugar, the stuff that makes Vietnamese soup broths rock (really!).
For people of my parents' generation, the white sand sugar is preferred because it is consistent in flavor, clean of impurities (you don’t have to pick unsavory bits out of it before using), and makes cooking easier, particularly baking. Refined sugar in Vietnam is a luxe ingredient as it costs more. On the other hand, cooks of my generation have greater access to affordable refined sugar and now we’re hungering for a bit of unexpected notes that can be savored in unrefined palm sugar. Older folks may laugh at us, but it’s the 21st century and better times allow us to mix things up in the kitchen.
Kinds of palm sugar: There are many types – the light yellow/pale brown hard stuff that’s used in Vietnam and Thailand, and the darker, smoky version preferred in Malaysia and Indonesia. Each has a unique complexity that is not found in refined cane sugar. The Viet and Thai palm sugar has delicate fragrance and sweetness. The Malay and Indonesian gula (sugar) is heartier and akin to mixing molasses with light brown sugar. Overall, Southeast Asian palm sugar isn’t intensely sweet, despite their pronounced character. Each one talks back to you in a unique flavor and tone.
Along with the ones I took from Robyn, I purchased more from local Asian markets in the San Jose area. In a personal tasting of the sugars in the photo on the right, sometimes I sensed coconut and other times an unusual fruity quality. All the sugars had aroma too. The uncommon fudgy dark one on the spoon could have served as dessert. Robyn’s selection was the three darker ones. I encourage you to get some next time you shop and start playing with it!
How to use palm sugar: Admittedly, sometimes I steal a bit of sugar and eat it. I don’t have a sweet tooth but the stuff tastes really good. But that’s not realistic. Palm sugar is usually solid or somewhat hard so you have to use a knife to shave or cut off pieces. Here are two suggestions for using palm sugar in Vietnamese cooking:
Caramel sauce. Though I’ve never tried it, I think you can caramelize the lighter Thai and Viet sugar. However, don’t do that with already dark Malay and Indonesian gula jawa/melaka/aren; (jawa means Java and melaka is Malacca, two areas known for producing quality palm sugar; aren refers to arenga, a species of a genus of small to medium palms.) Don’t use a dark gula type of sugar as a substitute for caramel sauce because they lack the bittersweet quality of caramel sauce.
A safe bet is to make caramel sauce with regular supermarket white cane sugar and then when you make your kho caramel sauce dishes, use palm sugar instead of regular white sugar to round out the flavors; sugar is usually added to the caramel sauce. Caramel sauce is tricky and can fail if there are impurities in the sugar. Stick with what you know works and then tweak with palm sugar.
How to buy palm sugar: Locate palm sugar at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets. Check the Thai food section and the Indonesian/Malaysian food section (usually tucked away somewhere). In the U.S., palm sugar is usually available as tube shapes formed by packing them in bamboo, mounds that resemble falsies of various sizes, cut slices, in jars, and as disks. Buy at the mid to upper end of the price range for better quality.
Storage tips: Store in a dry spot in airtight container or zip-top bag.