Chancaca is a type of sugar commonly used in Peru. It is unrefined, and retains many of the impurities that are commonly removed during the process of making white sugar. This dark sugar is used to sweeten many foods, but one of its most common uses is to make chancaca syrup, a sweet liquid that is often flavored with the rind of an orange.
When sugar cane is juiced, it produces a dark, rich liquid that is thin and watery. To make sugar, the juice is strained to remove impurities such as bits of leaves and cane. It is then simmered slowly over a low heat for many hours, which causes the water to evaporate. Eventually what is left is a thick brown syrup that is very sweet.
This syrup is what chancaca is made from, poured into molds where it sets into solid blocks of dark sugar. These blocks, which are typically may be circular or square, are how this sugar is sold. Many recipes that call for it as an ingredient may refer to using a block of it rather than using some other form of measurement.
Despite the impurities, fans of chancaca often maintain that it is far more healthful than regular sugar. The dark color is caused by all of the impurities that are not removed from the product, which may include such things as potassium, iron and magnesium. Unlike white sugar, chancaca provides essential nutrients rather than empty calories. These impurities and their associated nutrients ultimately become a by-product of making white sugar, and are combined to create molasses.
Since the molasses is left in when chancaca is made, this type of sugar has a very distinct flavor that many compare to caramel. It is often also mixed with honey, either crystallized honey in the sugary blocks or liquid honey in various recipes. This adds to the strong, sweet flavor of this sugar, a taste that many find they prefer.
Chancaca goes by different names in places outside of Peru. In Asia it may be called gur or jiggery, and in the Philippines it goes by the name of muscovado. Many parts of Latin America call this sugar panela or raspadura. In the United States and other countries that typically use mainly white, refined sugar, it may be hard to find, but can sometimes be located in a health food store or an ethnic market, under any of these names.