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Palm sugar is a sugar that is extracted from the sap of palm trees. Numerous varieties of palm tree are tapped for their sugar, although sugar from date palms and palmyra palms tends to be the most prized. It can also be extracted from sago and coconut palms. This sugar is widely used throughout Southeast Asia, and it has a number of regional names, including jaggery and gur.
To extract the sap, climbers ascend the palm tree and slash the flower buds, placing buckets under them to collect the sap that wells out. Then the sap can be boiled down to concentrate it and evaporate the moisture. Depending on how heavily the sugar is processed, it may be sold in the form of a paste, or it may be dried out and molded into blocks or cones to make it easier to handle.
Palm sugar varies in color from a light golden color to a rich dark brown. It tends to be extremely grainy, with dried forms being highly crumbly, and it is typically minimally processed. Many people like to use it in cooking because it is so coarse and unprocessed, and many Southeast Asian recipes call specifically for this type of sugar. The light processing leaves much of the flavor of the sugar intact, creating an almost molasses-like flavor.
You may also see palm sugar sold as “coconut sugar,” which can be a bit confusing, since coconut fruits themselves are not actually involved. It is also sometimes marketed as “palm honey.” In addition to being used in cooking, the sugar can also be treated to create palm wine and arrack, a strong distilled liquor that is popular in some parts of Southeast Asia.
Asian markets are a good resource for palm sugar, and this sugar can also be ordered through specialty retailers. Many companies sell it in jars or tins, which makes it easy to ship and store, and if you purchase a block or cone, be aware that blocks are often coated in wax for shipping. Check for wax before shaving off the desired amount of sugar.
If you have a recipe that calls for palm sugar and you have trouble finding it, you can try using dark brown sugar mixed with a little molasses. The molasses will intensify the flavor of the sugar and also create the desired level of moisture.