Gluten-Free Tuesday: Palm Sugar

palm sugar

[Shauna James Ahern]

As I sat at the computer, trying to wrestle a sentence to the ground, my husband came in the room. From behind me, he said, "Close your eyes."

Of course.

I felt him move up behind me, his breath on my neck. "Open your mouth."

Like a baby bird, waiting, I opened. He put a paste on my tongue, fragrant and unknown to me. A little ginger, some coconut, maybe vanilla? I like these games we play—guess the taste. What new baking combination had he created?

"What is it? Something for the cookies?" I said as I opened my eyes.

He smiled at me. "It's palm sugar."

"What? That's sugar? It's not a bunch of foods together? All that taste in one ingredient?" I got up from the computer and moved with him to the kitchen.

"Let's play."

Palm sugar is nothing like the sugar in the pink and white bag, or the fluff of powdered sugar we sift over pancakes, or the molasses-drenched brown sugar for holiday baking. It is singular, far more complex in flavor than any sweetener I have ever tasted.

I'm going to tell you now, however, that I don't know much about it. I've learned, mostly from Pim's primer on palm sugar and this entry from Viet World Kitchen, written by the wonderful Andrea Nguyen, that palm sugar is made by collecting the sap from the flowering stalks of the sugar palm tree. Afterward, it is boiled, crystallized, and then hardened into various shapes. We've been grating our Thai palm sugar on the microplane, which gives it a fine consistency. Put it in your mouth and it forms a natural paste, far more delicious than the paste your dentist puts on your teeth.

Types of Palm Sugars

However, there is much confusion about palm sugar. Some folks call it coconut palm sugar, but that's not the same as traditional Thai palm sugar. Indonesian palm sugar is darker in color and smokier in taste than Thai palm sugar, as is Malaysian palm sugar. All kinds sold to American consumers can be adulterated with white sugar, since it's cheap, and so not what palm sugar is supposed to be. (Looking at the photo I took of palm sugar, with its white patches, I'm wondering if that's true of ours.)

Uses for Palm Sugar

Many folks are turning to palm sugar because they feel it's healthier than traditional American sugars, claiming it's lower on the glycemic index than cane sugar. (Not if it's palm sugar cut with cane sugar, however.) In the world of alternative sweeteners to sugar, palm sugar is becoming quite the darling.

For me, however, it's the taste that's intoxicating. Once I went gluten-free and decided to explore every food I can eat, I let flavor be the guide as to what shows up in our kitchen. Danny and I both imagine airy-high frostings for gluten-free cupcakes made with palm sugar instead of powdered sugar. A palm sugar caramel sauce might be the perfect accompaniment to roast pork loin. What about cream puffs with a star-anise/palm sugar pastry cream filling?

I wish I could try the kuih ketayap featured on Eating Asia: "a sort of pancake tinted green with pandan leaf and rolled around a filling of grated coconut and palm sugar." And these steamed palm sugar custards look pretty wonderful too.

However, I'd love to know how you use palm sugar. Do you include it in your baked goods? Is it relegated to the Asian foods section of your pantry? Or have you found an inventive new way to use palm sugar in your kitchen?