Sunday, Feb 28th, 2016
What I’ll always remember about Singapore is the haze. Unbeknownst to me, my month of staging would directly coincide with the peak of Indonesia’s palm sugar harvest. As I stepped off the plane, directly across the Java Sea thousands of acres were being burned and the jet stream was dumping all of the residual smoke and ash down on Singapore. Consistently grey skies, headaches from spending more than a few hours outside—the price of keeping up with the demand for Southeast Asia’s primary sweetener.
While the environmental soundness and safety of intentionally setting a large part of a country ablaze is suspect, Indonesian farmers have found a variation of slash-and-burn agriculture the most efficient way of harvesting palm sugar. The fires burn away the tree’s leafy tops, which have no market value. The stalks, filled with water, don’t ignite and are later tapped to remove the palm sap. The rest of the process is similar to making maple syrup: the sap is cooked down to produce a thick liquid and impurities are skimmed away. This resulting syrup, called gula malaka, is jet black and tastes of smoke and burnt caramel, and is delicious over vanilla ice cream. Further refining leads to the product sold in most Asian markets across the U.S., which is palm sugar in the form of beige crystallized pucks. This type is much creamier, with a taste reminiscent of sweetened condensed milk, fresh coconut, and buttery caramel.
Solidified palm sugar can either be dissolved in water to make a syrup, or grated finely to be used in other pastry applications. Palm sugar has a few convenient properties, the first of which is its low glycemic index, which means spending an afternoon eating the various sweets sold at an Asian market doesn’t cause the kind of blood sugar spike/crash one would experience on a donut-crawl across New York City while eating an equivalent amount of refined white sugar.
One of the simplest and most delicious ways to enjoy palm sugar is in kaya, the national condiment of Singapore. A typical Singaporean breakfast consists of kopi (coffee with sweetened condensed milk), a soft boiled egg, and a thick slice of toast topped with butter and kaya, a coconut jam. I personally prefer nyonya kaya, which includes pandan (a green leaf, the juice or extract of which is used in Asia as Americans use vanilla and whose taste, just like vanilla, is impossible to articulate) and have included that recipe below.
250 g thick coconut milk (often sold as coconut cream, but not Coco Lopez)
250 g palm sugar, grated on a microplane
200 g granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pandan extract (sold in Asian markets in a small green plastic bottle)
-Place all of the ingredients in a metal bowl, whisk to combine.
-Set over a pot of simmering water and whisk continuously until thickened (about 15 minutes). Strain through chinois if you desire an entirely smooth product.
-Chill over an ice bath, then store in the fridge.
Palm sugar’s second convenient property is its extremely low pH, which the chef Will Goldfarb utilizes in making his Balinese meringue. While French, Italian, and Swiss meringues are all variations in technique but similar in their use of white sugar, Goldfarb developed a method for meringue that is 100% palm sugar. Acid, whether lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar (a derivative of tartaric acid), is often used to stabilize meringues. Lower pHs create more stable meringues—the protein in egg whites coagulate more strongly to form a tight, glossy meringue, rather than a light, frothy one. So, Goldfarb was able to create a product using local palm sugar that had a much lower sugar concentration than typical meringues because of it’s acidic nature. The trick to the technique comes in briefly using an ice cream machine—the meringue needs to be very cold in order to whip properly.
Will Goldfarb’s “Balinese” Meringue
210 g egg whites
178 g palm sugar, grated finely
212 g water
-Place all the ingredients in a blender and puree.
-Transfer to a bowl set over a pot of simmering water and whisk until the mixture reaches 84 degrees C.
-Transfer to an ice cream machine and spin/chill just until the mixture reaches -9 degrees C.
-Eject the mixture into a mixing bowl and whip on high speed to stiff peaks.
-Use as you would any other meringue (pipe and freeze, bake, dehydrate, torch, etc).
A final note: if you pick up some palm sugar from your nearest Asian market and start playing around with it in your existing recipes, be sure to substitute it for granulated or brown sugar at a 1:1 ratio by weight not volume! Depending on the fineness of the grater/microplane/grinder you use to break down the palm sugar, equivalent weights will yield differing volumetric measurements.