Question: Why is Thai food so lip-smackingly delicious?
Answer: palm sugar.
Well, maybe palm sugar isn't the only secret tropical ingredient behind Thai food's supreme balance of tangy, hot, salty, and sweet, but it's right up there with lemon grass, fish sauce, and kaffir limes. And we're thinking you might want to get your hands on some.
Made by tapping the sap of Palmyra and/or date palm trees, palm sugar requires the agile work of "toddy tappers," people who shinny their way up some seriously long palm trunks with just a rope around their ankles. They collect the fruit, beat it (gently, apparently) with a mallet, and slice it open it to drain the sap. Then the sap is boiled down into heavy, moist sugar.
You'll find it in tubes, blocks, cans, or lovely shell spirals, in colors ranging from ivory to latté brown. The best is somewhere in the middle, a ripe banana-flesh color that's not too white (beware the nefarious presence of mixed-in white sugar) and not too dark (indicating the smokier flavors of Indonesian sugar). The ideal consistency is firm, but soft enough to cut and crumble with a knife.
How to test your palm sugar? Cut off a chunk and taste it. If it crumbles when you chew, and you taste just a hint of caramel, you're in business. And meanwhile, you've just had a bite of palm sugar candy.
Be your own palm pilot. And once you've got
the shug, try the coconut sauce below.
Palm Sugar Coconut Sauce
1 1/2 cups, grated palm sugar
1/4 cup water
1 pandan leaf, tied into a knot
1/3 cup coconut milk
palm sugar, water, and pandan leaf into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
the heat and simmer for five minutes.
the coconut milk, bring to a slight boil, and stir.
sauce from heat and take out the pandan leaf.
cool and spoon over ice cream or flan. You can also stir in melted dark chocolate before you cool the mixture to make a to-die-for chocolate sauce.