The sap is extracted from flower buds (although it can be taken from the trunk of certain species) and is boiled down to form a thick, unrefined mass. Once much of the water has been evaporated out, the thickened sap is cooled and stirred to allow crystals to form then the molasses is removed by centrifuge. The colour of palm sugar can vary from pale golden to rich brown and the texture from soft and crumbly to extremely hard, depending on how it has been processed. Because of its largely unrefined nature, palm sugar contains vitamins and trace minerals and is less sweet than cane sugar. Jaggery, widely used in India for both cooking and in traditional medicine, is palm sugar that’s processed until it forms hard rocks. Palm sugar is used throughout South East Asia and the Subcontinent in both sweet and savoury dishes and it must be shaved or chopped before being added as an ingredient. It is widely available in Asian and Indian food stores and even large supermarkets.
1. Ginger and jaggery tea
Combine 3 English breakfast tea bags, 1 x 5cm piece of peeled ginger very finely sliced, 5 bruised cardamom pods and ¼ cup finely shaved jaggery in a large ceramic teapot. Pour over 1 litre boiling water, cover then stand for 7-8 minutes, stirring once or twice, to infuse. (You can add more or less ginger, sugar, water and tea to taste).
2. Coconut and egg jam (kaya)
Whisk together 1 cup coconut milk, 4 large eggs, 125 g finely shaved palm sugar and 2 tsp flour in a bowl until smooth. Stirring constantly, cook over medium-low heat for 5-6 minutes or until mixture is thick (don't let it get too hot or the eggs will scramble) Cool and serve on toast. Store in the refrigerator.
This sublime dish comes from the western Indian state of Gujerat, which is almost wholly vegetarian thanks to Jain and traditional Hindu religious influences. Make it as soupy or as thick as you like and serve with plenty of roti to scoop it up with.
4. Fried chicken wings
Combine ½ cup each of fish sauce, shaved palm sugar, and coconut water in a large bowl and mix well. Add 2 tbsp finely grated ginger , 1 tsp ground black pepper and 4 crushed cloves of garlic. Add 1½ kg chicken wing drummettes or mid-sections, tossing to coat. Refrigerate overnight. Drain well then toss in rice flour to lightly coat. Deep fry, in batches, in 170ºC vegetable oil for about 7 minutes.
5. Palm sugar Chinese masterstock
Combine 1½ litres water, 1 cup light soy sauce, 2 ½ tbsp dark soy, 1 cup Shaoxing wine, 175 g shaved palm sugar, 2 pieces dried orange peel, 3 star anise, 2 cinnamon sticks, 3 bruised cloves of garlic and 1 x 5cm piece ginger, sliced, in a large saucepan. Simmer to dissolved sugar. Use to slow-poach a whole chicken or a piece of pork belly. Strain and freeze between uses - it will keep indefinitely.
Cooking in a sauce based on caramelised sugar is a hallmark of home-style Vietnamese cuisine – the (nearly burnt) sugar adds incredible depth of flavour to chicken, tofu, egg and fish. Caramelising sugar is incredibly hot so do take care not to splash any on you.
7. Green chilli and jaggery chutney (mulaka pachadi)
Saute ½ tsp black mustard seeds, 2½ tbsp finely chopped ginger, 150 g sliced large green chillies and a sprig of curry leaves in 2 tbsp vegetable oil over medium-high until seeds splutter. Add 1 tbsp tamarind puree, 2 tbsp shaved jaggery and ⅔ cup water. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until liquid reduces and thickens a little. Season well and serve with curries.
This dish is associated with the four-day harvest festival called Pongal, celebrated in the South of India in mid January. It is mainly celebrated in the state of Tamil Nadu and eating this sweet rice dish is an intrinsic part of the festivities.
9. Lemongrass and lime leaf syrup
Combine 1 cup shaved, pale palm sugar or jaggery in a saucepan with 150 ml water, ½ cup lime juice, 4 bruised kaffir lime leaves and 2 chopped stalks of lemongrass. Bring slowly to a simmer then cook for 5 minutes. Stand until cool then strain. Serve spooned over chunks of pineapple, pawpaw, rockmelon, banana and custard apple, scattered with fine shreds of kaffir lime leaf.
We've given the original Anzac biscuit a little tweak with the addition of palm sugar, making these oat-filled treats crispier than the usual chewy version. We may be messing with tradition here, but these caramel-hued biscuits are our new favourite.
Photographs by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Nick Banbury.