Palm & Coconut Sugar – Nahm Dtahn
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Palm sugar and coconut sugars (nahm dtahn bpeep/buk & nahm dtahn maprao): Although the names are used interchangeably, palm sugar and coconut sugar are not the same. One comes from the palmyra or sugar palm and the other from coconut palm, but both are produced from the sweet, watery sap that drips from cut flower buds. The sap is collected each morning and boiled in huge woks on the plantations until a sticky sugar remains. This is whipped and dropped in lumps on cellophane, or filled into containers. Because it is not highly processed like brown sugar, the color, consistency, flavor and level of sweetness can vary from batch to batch, even within the same brand.
The color can be as light as creamy beige and as dark as rich caramel brown, and the consistency soft and gooey, or rock hard, depending on how long the sap was reduced. Palm sugar usually has a darker color, a more fragrant smoky aroma and a more complex flavor than coconut sugar, though sometimes additives have been mixed in to lighten its color. Degree of sweetness, too, can vary; therefore, use your taste buds to guide you in determining how much to use in the recipes. I generally find the darker, stickier palm sugar to be richer and more flavorful. The difference in coloration, sweetness and flavor, again, reflects the fact that these natural sugars are not highly processed like brown sugar, which always seems to be uniform in color and sweetness from box to box. Much depend on the type of palm trees, time of year when the sugar is tapped and, to some degree, the heat and fuel source used to reduce the nectar.
In Asian markets, palm and coconut sugars are available in plastic containers or plastic bags of various sizes and also in tin cans. Coconut and palm sugars keep well when stored in a cool dry place and do not need to be refrigerated. They are great sweeteners, balancing agents and flavor enhancers for curries and robust sauces. Many coconut desserts are accentuated by their rich, caramel taste and distinctive aroma.
Palm sugar may also be labeled as coconut sugar and vice versa. So it is best to buy your sugar by sight and feel (squeeze the plastic container to ascertain its consistency) than by its label. If you have a choice, select a soft, rich brown sugar; if not, any kind is better than none. A soft sugar makes it easier to spoon out and use, but more often than not, coconut and palm sugars come in hard, crystallized chunks which keep better. If so, it is best to cut and peel back the plastic container, place the lump in a bag and hammer it into small crystals for ease of usage. You scan also scrape it with a spoon or a hand-held coconut shredder with sharp teeth. Some people add water and melt the sugar in the microwave; however, this often increases the likelihood of spoilage, reducing its otherwise indefinite shelf life. Sometimes, in the same shipment, some containers hold hardened sugar while others may still be moist. That's because palm sugar is not a highly processed sugar, and much of its production is still a cottage industry. Some wokfuls of palm nectar are boiled down more than others before being filled into containers. When cooled, it crystallizes into a block.
Neither coconut nor palm sugar needs to be refrigerated, but if it is soft and moist, take care to keep it away from heat and exposure to air which may encourage mold growth. If mold begins to appear on the sugar, remove the top half to one inch; the remainder of the dense sugar may still be fine.
Although they are used primarily for making sweets and desserts, their creamy, caramel-like sweetness also enhances the flavor of curries and rich sauces for savory dishes. Since the degree of sweetness may vary from batch to batch, add enough "to taste." Substitute with brown sugar only if you absolutely cannot find either. For sweetening light dishes, granulated sugar is preferred over palm or coconut sugar.
Roadside stalls along the highway passing by the peninsula town of Petchburi sell bottles of tan-colored, fresh sugar palm nectar (which Thais call "fresh palm water" [näm dtahn sod]) along with bags of the mild-tasting, gelatinous young fruits. Fresh palm nectar is a delicious aromatic drink with a distinctly smoky flavor. More flavorful than the lighter-colored coconut nectar, it usually makes a better-tasting, more caramel-flavored sugar than coconut sugar.
Also of interest is a discussion on coconuts. Aside from the coconut itself and the palm sugar, the coconut palm also and tender, edible shoots (unopened new leaves atop the palm, called "palm heart") which make a delectable crisp vegetable.
This Web site has a wealth of information on coconuts and coconut oil.