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What Is Panela?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Panela is a type of unrefined sugar that is extracted from sugarcane and popular in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Many countries in South America, Asia and Southeast Asia use this unrefined sugar, where it is also referred to as rapadura (Brazil), piloncillo (Mexico), jaggery or gurh (India). "Panela" is most closely associated with Colombian cuisine. Commonly sold in hard, flat cakes, it is inexpensive and readily available to most Colombians. It is used primarily in desserts and syrups, including a drink called aguapanela that is very popular in the region. The unrefined sugar also is one of the staple industries in Colombia, which is the second largest producer of the unrefined whole cane sugar in the world after India.

Blocks of panela can be produced on a large commercial scale, or it can be made simply and slowly by local farmers. Commercially, the process begins with the harvesting of sugarcane that is then crushed to extract the juice from the stalks. The juice is cleaned and heated while ingredients are added to cause certain impurities to be removed. As the purified sugarcane liquid is heated, it reduces down to a concentrated form. This concentrate is mixed until it begins to crystallize and is then ready for packaging, where it will harden into its final state as panela.

A method used by local farmers is much more basic. The farmers use mills to extract the liquid from the sugarcane. They strain it by hand, and then pour it into large containers. Instead of heating the liquid, it is allowed to slowly condense through natural evaporation. The final product is then packaged and sold, sometimes bearing an organic designation.

The hard blocks of panela are usually grated down into a coarse powder that can be used to produce the popular drink aguapanela. This is a mixture of water and the unrefined sugar that is heated until the sugar dissolves completely. The panela imparts a very dark, coffee-like color to the sweetened water. Lemon or lime can usually be added to the drink but pieces of cheese also can be dropped into it when it is served hot. The addition of cloves or powdered cloves and cinnamon sticks turns aguapanela into another popular drink known as melado.

In savory cooking, panela can be used to make a side dish called mazamorra. This is a bowl of maize that has been cooked down into a mush. Along with milk, the panela is added to the mush to sweeten it. Mazamorra can be served as a side dish or as a midday snack.

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