Palm Sugar: Thailand’s More Delicious Alternative to Refined Sugar

Michael Sopon New

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Sugar is one of those things that many of us just can’t get enough of. After all, it’s chemically designed to stimulate the brain’s dopamine system. Most of us are predominantly presented with one of two options: brown sugar and white sugar. But what if there was a better, more tasty sugar? Enter palm sugar — Thailand’s delicious natural sweetener.

Read on to learn exactly what is palm sugar, what it tastes like, which Thai dishes use palm sugar, and some surprising facts about this crop.

What is palm sugar?

Organic palm sugar on a woven tray
Source: NilaSito / Shutterstock.com

Palm sugar or nam taan tanod is actually very similar to maple syrup in many ways. It’s made by collecting the sap of the toddy palm flowers. The sap is then boiled until it thickens — first into a syrup and then eventually into solid sugar crystals. These crystals are collected and often sold as bricks or cakes in Thailand, which are sometimes called jaggery. In other countries, you might be able to find palm sugar as a paste. Palm sugar should not be confused with coconut sugar (nam taan maprao), which is made in much the same way but from coconut trees instead of toddy palms.

While Thailand has lush palm trees all over the country, Phetchaburi province is the best known for the toddy palms that are used to make sugar. The tree is also called a fan palm, as its leaves look a bit like a handheld fan or a rake. Incidentally, the fruit of the tree is also quite delicious, with sweet jelly seed sockets that have an enticing floral coconut flavor.

Toddy palms grow exceedingly well in this region of the country and it’s no wonder that palm sugar found in Phetchaburi is considered some of the best in the world. In fact, the province was recently recognized as a City of Gastronomy, partly due to its sweet, not-so-secret ingredient.

Why does palm sugar hit different?

Here, it’s important to understand the difference between white and brown sugar. White sugar is usually made from the juices of sugar cane or sugar beets. The juices are processed into crystals and spun to remove all the liquid, which become molasses. Brown sugar, on the other hand, still contains some of these molasses. This is why brown sugar often has more of a flavor than white sugar and why it often clumps up in the box (higher moisture content).

Palm sugar is what’s called raw or unrefined sugar because it contains most of the original molasses. This means it isn’t nearly as sweet as refined sugar. Good palm sugar tastes like coconut fudge. You can eat it right off of a spoon and you would be forgiven for thinking it was a delectable dessert unto itself. For those who are a fan of coconuts, palm sugar is undoubtedly an excellent alternative to other more common sugars.

How is palm sugar used?

Left: Khanom tuay, Source: Vassamon Anansukk / Shutterstock.com. Right: Khanom taan, Source: Kritchai7752 / Shutterstock.com

Palm sugar is used in all sorts of famous Thai dishes. As you might expect, it’s used in many Thai desserts like khanom tuay and khanom taan

However, it’s also commonly seen in papaya salad (som tam), green curry (kaeng khiew waan), Pad Thai, and chili dipping sauce (nam jim jaew) – just to name a few. After all, Thai cuisine is all about a balance of flavors, so perhaps it’s no surprise that savory spicy dishes benefit from a bit of sweetness. In fact, if you’ve had authentic Thai food, there’s a good chance you’ve already tasted palm sugar!

Authentic Thai food including papaya salad, pad thai, and tom yam kung
Source: Agave Photo Studio / Shutterstock.com

Unlike some other exotic ingredients, palm sugar is actually very affordable. In Thailand, you can probably pick up a ½ kg cake for just 100 baht at your local market. It also makes for an excellent gift for friends who take a little sugar with their coffee or love to bake.

Palm sugar has that hint of coconut which pairs excellently with Southeast Asian ingredients, but has the potential to yield new flavor combinations in Western dishes. Try it out for yourself and let us know how it goes!

A greener crop

A man climbing up a sugar palm tree
Source: K.Decha / Shutterstock.com

The sugar palm is quite sustainable, particularly in its ability to produce an incredible amount of useful bio-product, even when planted in degraded soil.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to compare the sugar palm with another tree that’s famous for producing sugary substances: the maple tree. While the sugar collection between toddy palms and maple trees is similar, there are some big key differences that really set the toddy palm apart as the more sustainable option.

Sugar palms begin to produce flowers once they are 15 years old. Maple trees are rarely tapped until they are 40 years old. 

The toddy palm can be harvested for 4-5 months out of the year at an average of 4.5kg of sap per day or about 108 kg of sugar per year. Compare that to a maple tree, which produces 45 liters of tapped sap per year or just 1 liter of maple syrup (1.33 kg) per year.

A Food and Agriculture Organization report finds that palm sugar, when harvested using traditional techniques, is a largely sustainable industry with minimal environmental impact, even when compared to traditional sugar cane farming.

Palm sugar being poured into a mold
Source: Browneye / Shutterstock.com

For the foodies out there who love to experience new ingredients or simply for those with a sweet tooth — alternative sweeteners like palm sugar can open up a whole new world of flavor.

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Michael Sopon New

Michael graduated from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada where he studied Civil Engineering. After working in the engineering field for a few years, Michael moved to Thailand where he worked as a lecturer at Silpakorn University, a translator, a language consultant, and a construction manager before he began his acting career in 2013. Since then, he has worked in television, film, online platforms, and cartoons as an actor, writer, and producer.

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