• Jaggery, palm sugar, gula melaka, rock sugar, Chinese brown sugar - there is a huge variety of sugars used across Asian cooking. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Who knew there was so many ways to add the sweet to the salt, bitter, sour and umami?
Bron Maxabella

22 Feb 2021 - 4:51 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2021 - 3:51 PM

--- Diana Chan is bringing the wonder of Asian cuisine to your homes in the second series of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, Thursdays at 8pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. ---


If there's one ingredient in the different styles of Asian cooking that causes a 'what now?' reaction, it's got to be  sugar. Who knew there was so many ways to add the sweet to the salt, bitter, sour and umami?

In a word: plenty. Most likely in forms you've never heard of before.

There's jaggery, palm sugar, gula melaka, rock sugar, kokuto, Chinese brown sugar, pian tang, coconut sugar, maltose... it's enough to make your head spin.

Texture and flavour

A lot of of the variety has to do with regional differences. "What we know as gula melaka or gula merah [in Malaysian cooking] has its counterparts gula aren, gula jawa and gula kelapa in Indonesia... these are different kinds of palm sugar extracted from different varieties of palm," explains Jackie M, a Malaysian-born, Sydney-based former Malaysian restaurateur, hawker food expert, and the founder of Masters of Malaysian Cuisine.

Thai and Cambodian palm sugar are paler in colour with a lighter flavour than the darker palm sugar varieties of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, explains Jackie. "Some of them. like palm sugar and Malaysian palm sugar, are so different - not just in flavour but also in texture - that I wouldn't interchangeably use them."

Substitute or not

With other sugars, the difference in texture and flavour is so subtle that Jackie will happily substitute one for the other. Diana Chan, host of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan agrees that it's mostly not something the home cook generally needs to worry about. 

"To be perfectly honest there isn’t too much difference to your average Joe..."

"To be perfectly honest there isn’t too much difference to your average Joe," she tells SBS Food. "To me it’s more about the colour.

"Obviously sugars such as jaggery and palm are darker, and some may argue are better for you due to it being less processed and more natural. I think there are also subtle flavour variances where you can taste the hints of coconut or more molasses taste."

Brown sugar at the ready

If you find your cupboard bare of specialty sugar, Diana suggests substituting most dark sugars with humble brown sugar.

"It has a closer taste to jaggery, as well as [being darker]," she says. "It has a more caramel and richer flavour to it."

One thing to watch out for when interchanging sugar in Asian recipes is the level of sweetness the dish needs. For instance, as rock sugar is made from a water and sugar solution, it's typically less sweet than unrefined sugar. Some sugars like gula kabung err more on the molasses side of flavour and are also milder in sweetness than other varieties. 

Some sugars have a 'smokier' flavour or more fragrance than others.

"If you use it for cake or sweets, you will need to add more of it to get the sweetness," former Masterchef Malaysia judge and chef Johari Edrus tells SBS Food.

He also points out that some sugars have a 'smokier' flavour or more fragrance than others, and this may affect the final dish.

What where when and by who

Here's the buzz on the most commonly used sugars is in Asian cooking:

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Are all sugars equal? Are some healthier than others? We get down to the nitty-gritty of sugar.


This unrefined brown sugar is made by boiling raw, concentrated sugarcane juice until it becomes solid. It's then formed into blocks. Jaggery has the slightly bitter taste of molasses and the richness of caramel. It is commonly used throughout India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan.

Recipe here.

Palm sugar

Palm sugar comes from the sugar palm or date palm. Sap is collected from the flowers or from a tap in the trunk of the tree, and then boiled down to form a syrup known as palm honey. It can also be crystalised to form a grainy sugar. It is mostly used in Indian, Indonesian, Thai and some African cuisines. 

The stirring story of how rich, sweet palm sugar is made
From golden to dark and smoky, meet the sugar that’s the secret to so many southeast Asian sweets.

There are many types of palm sugar, each being made from a different variety of palm, including gula melaka, gula aren, gula jawa, gula kelap and gula kabung (gula simply means 'sugar' in both Malay and Indonesian). 

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar is similar to palm sugar, but it is harvested from the buds of coconut tree flowers. Coconut sugar has a lighter butterscotch flavour compared to the deeper, smokier notes of palm sugar. For this reason, coconut sugar is mostly used across Southeast Asia when cooking desserts and sweets.

Recipe here 


A specialty of Japan's health-lauded Okinawa region, unrefined kokuto is often billed as a health product. It's been made in exactly the same way since the 17th Century: slow cooking down pure sugarcane juice that has been extracted from twice-pressed sugarcane. Kokuto plays an important role in Okinawan stir fries, broths and sweets. 

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Chinese brown sugar

Peen tong or pian tang is an unrefined sugar directly concentrated from sugarcane without removing the molasses. It's a dense, dark sugar that is sold in slabs. Its sandy texture and complex flavour is similar to unrefined muscovado sugar (which makes the best substitute if needed).

Recipe here

Rock sugar

Rock sugar is also known as rock candy or sugar candy - so you pretty much know what you're in for. It's a refined white sugar made by cooling sugar syrup into large crystals. It's often created around a stick, ready to eat as a confectionery, but it's big, bold sugar flavour is also used in savoury Chinese and Vietnamese dishes like these:

Anthony Zhao’s red braised pork

A favourite of Chairman Mao, Chinese red braised pork is rich, sticky, savoury- sweet and very delicious!

Chicken phở with soft-cooked egg

Phở varies dramatically from the north of Vietnam to the south. Every family and every street vendor has a unique understanding of what phở should taste like, what it should be garnished with and how it should be eaten. There is no right or wrong.

Dongpo pork

Originating in the Huangzhou province in China, Dongpo pork is rumoured to have been invented by the Chinese poet and scholar Su Dongpo while in exile. This modern version sees the pork steamed in a bag retaining all its juices.


Maltose is a natural sweetener derived from fermented grains like barley or rice. It's often called malt syrup or malt sugar. It's actually more solid than syrups like maple syrup or even honey and is much less sweet than either. When used to baste chicken or pork, maltose produces crispiness and amazing gloss. It's also used extensively in baking for dishes like moon cakes and other pastries.

Crispy skin Chinese chicken

In this Chinese recipe the chicken is poached very gently, then dipped in vinegar and maltose, dried and deep-fried making for the most wonderful crispy skin! Serve as part of a shared meal.

Extra-sweet stuff
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Pistachio ice cream with burnt sugar

Pistachios, a mainstay of Persian cuisine, make their way into Iran's ice-cream and make for a delightfully rich and bold flavour with a wholesome creamy texture.

Sweet appam

Made from a batter of fermented rice, coconut and yeast, these traditional Southern Indian pancakes are light and crisp. Although usually savoury, these are a sweet version that is a fun dessert or sweet brunch twist.

The stirring story of how rich, sweet palm sugar is made
From golden to dark and smoky, meet the sugar that’s the secret to so many southeast Asian sweets.
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Is coconut sugar the perfect alternative sweetener?
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Palm sugar Anzac biscuits

Our twist on the traditional Anzac biscuit combines oats and coconut with the rich, caramel notes of palm sugar.