First of all, allow me to apologise for not having blogged for such a long time. I had back surgery in early July and since then have been recovering, admittedly with enough time to blog, but unfortunately little in the way of content or desire. I’m more or less mobile now and am ready to jump...er carefully lower myself back into blogging again.
Before white sugar crystals became ubiquitous, Thais generally sweetened their food with sugar made from the sap of the sugar palm or coconut tree. I had a general idea of what was involved with making this type of sugar but had never witnessed it being produced firsthand, so I jumped at the chance when invited to go on a sugar run with Dylan and Bo of Bangkok's best upscale Thai restaurant, Bo.lan. With the help of a Thai academic, they were able to source a producer of coconut sugar in Samut Songkhram, about two hours from Bangkok. The sugar, which they use in their restaurant (and which can also be purchased there), is produced traditionally and naturally, and isn’t adulterated with white sugar, as is allegedly often the case these days.
The process begins by tapping the young flowering buds of the coconut tree. The woman pictured at the top of this post (who, incidentally, is in her 50s) does this by climbing a tree, armed with a machete and a few long can-like tubes slung over her shoulder:
She shaves the tip off a fruiting bud and after the sap begins to flow, hangs the tube below it to collect the liquid. Depending on how much the trees are producing, it can take a few hours to fill the tube, which also contains wood chips that naturally prevent the sap from fermenting. We were offered some of the freshly gathered sap and it was watery and sweet, and had a slightly musty, yeast-like odour. The sap is gathered twice a day, and if the trees are neglected for too long, the buds will flower instead, eventually resulting in coconuts.
After all the cans are collected (they have more than 100 trees), the sap is filtered through a cloth into large woks positioned above a long stove:
A fire is lit, which in a tidy cycle is fueled by sugar palm leaves, and the sap is left to boil for about an hour until its volume has been reduced by approximately two-thirds. The constantly evaporating water carries the yeasty odour of the sap, making the work area smell not unlike a brewery.
After about an hour and a half the once watery sap had stopped foaming and had changed in form to a simmering liquid the consistency and colour of a dark syrup. It was poured into another nearby wok where, using a special tool, it was stirred and eventually whipped for about five minutes:
According to Dylan, this process introduces air into the sap, effectively crystallising the sugar and providing it with a pale colour and a slightly gritty paste-like texture.
The sugar is then scraped into small metal bowls or a large metal tin known as a peep (a colloquial Thai name for this type of sugar is nam taan peep, 'tin sugar') where it’s allowed to cool and solidify even more. If kept relatively cool, the sugar will maintain its solid state, otherwise it will gradually melt back into a thick syrup. The final product has an attractive blond colour and a fragrant smell, and is not overwhelmingly sweet, with a savoury and even slightly salty flavour:
Both the sugar and excellent Thai food are available at Bo.lan.
Bo.lan 42 Soi Phichai Ronnarong, Soi 26, Th Sukhumvit, Bangkok 02 260 2962 www.bolan.co.th 6.30pm-midnight Tues-Sun
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