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What Is Southeast Asian Sugar? And Use It in Cooking

Right here’s a dialog starter in your subsequent banquet: Ask your friends what number of sorts of sugar they’ll identify. If folks faucet out at white sugar, brown sugar, castor sugar, and possibly jaggery, it’s comprehensible. The primary three sorts dominate grocery retailer cabinets and eclipse different kinds, significantly these from Southeast Asia, particularly rock sugar and palm sugar. However sugars from that area give desserts, dipping sauces, and even curries their signature taste, and utilizing simply sufficient of them in savory dishes to realize a steadiness of candy, salty, tangy, and spicy is an artwork. For sure, there’s loads to find out about them, so let’s get began.

What sorts of sugar are mostly utilized in Southeast Asia?

Within the Philippines and elements of China, sugar cane is the prevailing supply of sugar and is available in varied kinds. The preferred is muscovado (granulated sugar, usually used as an alternative to brown sugar), however there’s additionally rock sugar (giant crystallized chunks), balicucha (hardened sugar cane syrup), panutsa de bao (a sugar cane chunk that has been poured right into a coconut mildew to harden), and sugar-adjacent merchandise like pulot (a sticky liquid made by cooking muscovado with coconut milk).

In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia, palm sugar is often used as a sweetener. This features a entire number of palm sugars which are often recognized regionally by the precise bushes their sap originates from, like gula melaka, gula jawa, gula apong, and gula aren (“gula” is the phrase for sugar in Malay and Indonesian). In Cambodia, palm sugar from Kampong Speu is licensed with geographical indication (GI) standing, which restricts its manufacturing to solely three of Cambodia’s 176 districts.

How is sugar made?

A species of perennial grass, sugar cane accounts for a lot of the sugar manufacturing on the earth. The sugar comes from the plant’s sap, which is collected when the stalks are fed via rollers and crushed. As a common rule, making refined sugar is a multistep course of that begins with straining and boiling the sap, evaporating the water to encourage crystallization of the sugars, after which separating the sugar crystals with a centrifuge.

Some variations of muscovado and balicucha are thought-about unrefined sugar, as they don’t undergo the centrifuge course of, which permits them to retain their molasses content material.

Compared, palm sugars are made by amassing sap from varied elements of the palm tree (there are totally different sorts of palm bushes, which all belong to the Arecaceae household). The sap is then boiled to take away any moisture, leaving the thick syrup to chill and harden into chunks. It’s a time-sensitive course of, because the collected sap will start to ferment until it’s processed instantly.

Palm sugar can also be thought-about unrefined sugar; it is available in totally different colours (from mahogany to toffee), textures (powder to syrup), and consistencies. Crucial differentiating issue is that totally different palm sugars come from totally different genera of palm bushes. The well-known gula melaka of Malaysia, referred to as gula jawa in Indonesia, comes from coconut bushes of the genus Cocos. Gula aren comes from the sugar palm tree of the genus Arenga and is understood in Indonesia as pohon enau or pohon aren. Gula apong comes from nipa palm bushes or mangrove palms of the genus Nypa. The sugars are processed in a different way based on the traditions of the place, caramelized to achieve their desired colours, and poured right into a container to harden and take form. Through the years, these containers have been all the pieces from bamboo stalks to coconut husks.

Do all of those sugars simply style… candy?

Sure and no. Whereas all of them are inherently candy, they’ll have totally different flavors relying on how they’re made and saved. For instance, panutsa de bao has a touch of coconut taste as a result of it’s made utilizing a coconut mildew. There’s additionally a sweetness scale. “On one finish of the dimensions is granulated white sugar, which could be very candy, and the opposite finish is rock sugar, which takes longer to dilute and is greatest used for drinks like chrysanthemums tea,” says Helen Goh, a recipe developer and the co-author of Candy. Someplace within the center are muscovado sugar and the assorted palm sugars.

However even this scale just isn’t terribly correct as a result of Southeast Asian sugars, significantly the palm sugars, have depth and complexity. Goh describes the style of palm sugar as “a deep molasses taste,” whereas Pailin Chongchitnant, the Thai Canadian chef behind the web site Scorching Thai Kitchen and the YouTube channel Pailin’s Kitchen, describes the style of pure palm sugar as a barely floral butterscotch sweet.

A bowl of sago gula melaka, sitting next to a spoon.

“It’s completely scrumptious and melts in your mouth right into a creamy texture. I can eat it straight up like sweet,” Chongchitnant says through electronic mail. “The stuff available on the market isn’t pure, nevertheless. All of them have varied levels of white sugar combined in, in order that butterscotch taste isn’t as pronounced and the feel is a little more granulated, however it’s nonetheless tasty.”

Relying on the kind of tree the sugar sap got here from and the way it’s processed, palm sugars in Malaysia and Indonesia can have a complete vary of flavors, which interprets to desserts with plenty of nuance. “For a lot of Asians, significantly the Malaysian Chinese language group, saying {that a} dessert just isn’t too candy is a praise!” Goh says with amusing.

In line with Debbie Teoh, a Nyonya chef and cookbook writer from Malaysia, the style of gula melaka is nice at first however has a “sourish high quality” towards the tip that possible factors to its origins as coconut sap, as people who repeatedly drink unprocessed coconut water can attest to its slight tanginess. “Pure gula melaka truly melts at room temperature if left outdoors,” says Teoh. Leaving gula melaka out for too lengthy can even lead to mildew, so protecting it within the fridge or freezer is important for long-term storage.

How do I do know which sugar to make use of?

You will need to level out that many of those sugars are produced by cottage industries, so there may be notable variations between batches, relying on the manufacturing strategies and obtainable pure sources to retailer the sap, like coconut husks. Nonetheless, the very first thing to think about is texture, since sugars are available in discs, blocks, tablets, and even liquids. Balicucha, for instance, is a useful aerated sugar capsule that dissolves simply in sizzling drinks, so it’s excellent if you would like a caramel-flavored espresso.

Then again, panutsa de bao, which is offered in a semicircle bao form befitting its identify, requires a bit extra work. Sonny Mariano, a pastry chef from the Philippines, is a fan of panutsa however acknowledges that there are a number of further steps earlier than he can use it. “Because it is available in massive chunks, we have now to cut it into smaller items first,” he says through electronic mail. “I principally use it as a sauce, boil it with coconut milk till it’s lowered to caramel consistency, after which use it as a topping for rice truffles.”

Goh does the identical with varied sorts of nongranulated sugar. “If it is available in blocks or chunks, I grate it and use the shavings,” she says. “This manner it is going to dissolve persistently in desserts or drinks.” Goh can also be a fan of palm sugar in pill kinds, which is a reasonably current innovation. “It’s actually useful as a result of it’s the equal of 1 tablespoon, and it’s straightforward to make use of in syrup or drinks,” she says.

One other factor to think about is the prominence of the sugar within the dish you’re making and its potential for substitution. Mariano’s recommendation for house cooks is to “style after which visualize if it is going to work within the recipe you’re cooking.” Muscovado is without doubt one of the best sugars to make use of as a substitution for others. “I often substitute muscovado when the recipe requires brown sugar, as with its molasses content material it acts extra like a brown sugar in baked recipes,” Mariano says. “Except for the flavour word, the sweetness stage varies as nicely.”

As for palm sugar, Chongchitnant makes use of it as an alternative to most sorts of sugar and vice versa. “Historically, palm sugar was our solely supply of sweetness in candy and savory dishes, however with the introduction of granulated sugar, which is extra handy and less expensive, folks switched to granulated sugar in savory dishes as an alternative,” she says. “In small quantities, it simply doesn’t actually make a distinction. And in savory dishes, “sweetness is usually added simply to steadiness the salt and/or acid, to not present a candy taste to the dish,” Chongchitnant continues. “And with many flavors of herbs, spices, and seasonings, the little little bit of palm sugar simply doesn’t actually come via. There are some dishes the place it does make a distinction, akin to pad thai, tamarind shrimp, or another dish the place the sweetness is distinguished.”

In case you have restricted entry to palm sugar and are slowly rationing it, Chongchitnant recommends utilizing it solely in candy dishes. “If you wish to actually style the palm sugar, it’s best used the place there aren’t many competing flavors and the place the sweetness is the principle style, akin to desserts,” she says.

This explains why gula melaka is the star of many well-known Nyonya desserts in Malaysia. Sago gula melaka is probably the best dessert that options gula melaka: It’s simply cooked sago pearls served with recent coconut milk and melted gula melaka. Gula melaka can also be the filling for onde-onde, the fun-to-make glutinous rice balls which are rolled in grated recent coconut. In the event you’d like one thing tougher, attempt glutinous rice desserts with gula melaka, akin to pulut inti or kuih koci.

In the event you’re occupied with studying to cook dinner with the sugars usually present in Southeast Asian cooking, listed below are a number of recipes that will help you get began.

Recipes the place sugar is distinguished:

Helen Goh’s black rice pudding (pulut hitam)

Scorching Thai Kitchen’s fried ice cream with pineapple caramel sauce

Rasa Malaysia’s stuffed glutinous rice balls (onde-onde)

Recipes the place sugar just isn’t the important thing focus:

Muscovado flatbreads

Pickled Plum’s Vietnamese dipping sauce

Scorching Thai Kitchen’s Thai inexperienced curry

Annie Hariharan is a Malaysian Australian function author who focuses on meals, meals historical past, and popular culture. She relies in Melbourne, Australia.
Alia Ali is a translator, cook dinner, and co-founder of the Malaysian meals web site Periuk. She relies in Langkawi, Malaysia.
Sophia Marie Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.



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