“If you can imagine caramel being simmered in coconut milk, that's kind of what it smelt like,” says Sydney-based Malaysian chef Jackie M Tang. She’s talking about watching the production of palm sugar, a slow process where palm sap is transformed into the rich, caramel-toffee flavoured ingredient used in a range of rich sweets.
The sap is boiled and carmelised, the slow cooking and stirring, and then cooling, creating blocks and discs of the sugar traditionally used in delicious Malaysian kuih – rich, often brightly colourful sweets - and other southeast Asian desserts, and savoury dishes too.
One of the better-known forms of this deliciously toffee-caramel flavoured sugar is gula melaka, which takes its name from the Malaysian state of Malacca, but as Jackie M (as she’s widely known) explains, there are many variations on this ancient sweetener.
“It's essentially the same thing in most parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. It's variously called gula aren, gula jawa, gula merah, gula kelapa, gula Melaka etcetera, depending on where it's from – for example, gula jawa in Java, or gula melaka in Malaysia because of its supposed origins from the state of Malacca – and/or the type of palm variety it’s extracted from – gula aren is from the aren palm – or even its appearance. Gula merah literally means ‘red sugar’.
“The process is the same everywhere: the palm flower sap is collected, then boiled until it's reduced and caramelised, then poured into moulds and allowed to harden.” Palm trunk sap is also used to make a similar sugar.
The traditional method requires a lot of patience. The boiling sap is stirred, sometimes for hours, to create the thick caramel, which is then poured into moulds to harden.
The resulting sugar is used in a huge range of sweets, from the popular street food sweet cendol to onde-onde (the glutinous rice balls with a palm sugar centre), and in savoury dishes too (for example, in this recipe for the Malaysian classic curry laksa.)
Rita Enar is the popular sweet maker behind Sydney’s Sweet Rita Kueh (kueh and kuih, she explains, are just variations on the same word). You’ll find her at festivals and other events, and she also sells her sweets and other Malaysian dishes to order each week. Palm sugar is a key ingredients in her range of sweets.
“I use different brand for different sweets, because some of them are lighter in colour and some are darker. They also taste a bit different,” she tells SBS Food.
Enar grew up in a village in the jungles of Borneo called Long Terawan. She describes herself as a self-taught cook, and her fascination with kuih started early. “When I was young, I loved seeing people making kuih. I would sit down next to the adults watching them making the kuih for a few hours,” she says.
Palm sugar is important in savoury dishes too. “I use gula melaka to balance the taste in my cooking, for example, rendang, curries and sambal, instead of using white sugar. The gula melaka will give a nicer colour into the dishes,” she says.
“Where I came from, we used gula apong or nipah sugar, which is similar to gula melaka. Unlike gula melaka where the sugar was obtained from coconut palm, gula apong is made by collecting juices from a type of mangrove palm called nipah palm or colloquially as ‘atap’.
“Gula apong has a more pungent smell and taste if compared to Gula melaka. Gula apong resembles treacle and is golden brown in colour. I remember most of all the festivals back home, we'd use a lot of gula apong in our snack and desserts. We proudly served them to the guests during the festivals.”
These days, one of her most popular offerings are onde-onde: “Make from pandan-flavoured glutinous rice flour balls, filled with gula melaka or palm sugar and coated with some grated coconut with a pinch of salt," she explains. "The palm sugar that's in it literally bursts in your mouth when you take a bite!”
Much less common in Australia but equally tempting is her kuih penyaram. “Also known as kuih UFO or Mexican hat, this is our traditional kuih back home especially in Brunei and Sabah. Made from rice flour, palm sugar and water. Some recipe use glutinous rice, plain flour and coconut milk, but the main ingredient is the palm sugar. All the tribe in Sarawak will make this kuih for festivals, but here in Australia you can't get it.”
Jackie M, too, uses a range of palm sugars – for example, in her recipe for kuih ketayap (pandan-infused crepes with a coconut and palm sugar filling, also known as kuih tayap or kuih dadar) - or onde-onde (“aka buah melaka in Melaka, and klepon in Indonesia, she explains). For these, she explains, “The gula melaka is first grated, then rolled between the fingers into marble-sized balls and used to fill the glutinous rice flour dough. When boiled, the gula melaka melts partly, so when you bite into the onde-onde the syrup oozes out, but you can still feel the texture of the sugar in your mouth.” Or for a super-simple dessert, there’s pengat pisang, where sago, palm sugar, pandal leaf and coconut cream are simmered together to create a rich sauce for sliced bananas, which are added to the saucepan for the final few minutes.
While the solid blocks of palm sugar are more common, you may also spot palm sugar syrup in some stores.
“I never saw palm sugar being sold in any form but in blocks until I saw Ayam brand palm sugar syrup on supermarket shelves here in Australia. We do use it as a syrup – for example over the shaved ice dessert called Ais Kacang and in the green mung bean jelly drink Ais Cendol - but I always make my own palm sugar syrup by simmering chunks of palm sugar syrup in boiling water,” says Jackie M, who is launching Wok Around Asia, an online Asian cooking course, in late 2019 (you can joint the mailing list for updates here).
Another classic Malaysian sweet that showcases gula melaka is kuih keria – small sweet doughnuts boiled in a palm sugar syrup.
It’s one of many local kuih that Donal Skehan delights in when he visits Melaka in Donal’s Asian Baking Adventures and has a chance to see gula melaka being made. “Oh, my goodness! That is the most rich, sort of toffee-like sugar you’ll ever taste,” he says, after trying freshly made gula melaka.
It also provides rich inspiration for his own recipe for gula melaka doughnuts:
As Jackie M says when SBS Food chats to her about palm sugar, with so many variations, from light to dark – “the Indonesian or Vietnamese varieties are usually darker, richer and more smoky,” she explains – there are many, many ways to use this delicious sap-turned-sugar.
"Kuehs are common snacks of the Hokkien, Teochew and Peranakan cuisine. The terminology is actually a general description for bite-size nibbles. These traditional delights come in many different forms and are either sweet or savoury. Ondeh ondeh are infused with pandan juice and filled with palm sugar, then rolled in coconut." Destination Flavour Singapore
With its musky vanilla overtones, pandan works well in breakfast pancakes, crepes, hotcakes and the like. If you can’t be bothered dealing with fresh leaves here, just substitute pandan essence (either clear or green) to taste. Use honey instead of the palm sugar syrup if you’re short on time; but do try and get sugar bananas, or lady fingers, if you can. The firm texture and rich, sweet, tangy flavour of these small varieties pack way more of a punch than the regular cavendish.
This Asian-inspired dessert is really easy to achieve and is full of refreshing flavours, with a hint of chilli providing a pleasant little kick.
If you can’t get fresh pandan leaves for the pancakes, substitute 1 teaspoon pandan paste, which you can easily purchase from Asian or Indian food stores. It will make the pancakes very green!