This rich-tasting, toffee-coloured, syrupy sugar of Southeast Asia is made by boiling down the sap of various palm trees. The flavour is sometimes likened to molasses however the taste is lighter and more caramelly. Palm sugar can be found sold in coarse brown cakes or lumps, or in pots of sticky granular paste.
IN THE KITCHEN
In Southeast Asia, palm sugar's use is very much not restricted to sweet dishes: it is an important counterpoint to the saltiness of flavourings such as fish sauce and dried shrimp paste. Palm sugar gives a caramel kick to the region's characteristically low-fat salad dressings and is an essential inclusion in Thailand's famous raw green papaya salad. Try using it in place of regular sugar in creamy or coconut-flavoured dishes such as panna cotta and coconut custard. Add it to banana puddings and smoothies, or for something more challenging, try Singapore's cendol bur bur cha cha - a colourful dessert of tapioca, sweet potato, brightly coloured noodles and coconut milk.
The best is soft and brown. Thai palm sugar is often sold in plastic tubs looks like solid creamed honey. If palm sugar is unavailable, light brown sugars and maple syrup can be substituted, but the taste will not be the same. Palm sugar is not the same as Indian jaggery, which is a dark unrefined sugar made from the dehydrated juice of crushed sugar cane, however jaggery and palm sugar can make acceptable substitutes in cooking when one or the other is unavailable.
Some recipes will tell you to grate the palm sugar before use, so that it is readily distributed in the other ingredients. You can also break up cakes of palm sugar with a mallet or the handle of a knife, or whiz them in the food processor. With softer, stickier varieties this is not practical, in which case warm spoonfuls of the palm sugar gently in a saucepan until melted. Check the pack to see whether the variety you have needs to be stored in the fridge.