Here’s a conversation starter for your next dinner party: Ask your guests how many types of sugar they can name. If people tap out at white sugar, brown sugar, castor sugar, and maybe jaggery, it is understandable. The first three types dominate grocery store shelves and eclipse other kinds, particularly those from Southeast Asia, namely rock sugar and palm sugar. But sugars from that region give desserts, dipping sauces, and even curries their signature flavor, and using just enough of them in savory dishes to achieve a balance of sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy is an art. Needless to say, there’s a lot to know about them, so let’s get started.
What kinds of sugar are most commonly used in Southeast Asia?
In the Philippines and parts of China, sugar cane is the prevailing source of sugar and comes in various forms. The most popular is muscovado (granulated sugar, often used as a substitute for brown sugar), but there is also rock sugar (large crystallized chunks), balicucha (hardened sugar cane syrup), panutsa de bao (a sugar cane chunk that has been poured into a coconut mold to harden), and sugar-adjacent products like pulot (a sticky liquid made by cooking muscovado with coconut milk).
In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia, palm sugar is typically used as a sweetener. This includes a whole variety of palm sugars that are usually known locally by the specific trees their sap originates from, like gula melaka, gula jawa, gula apong, and gula aren (“gula” is the word for sugar in Malay and Indonesian). In Cambodia, palm sugar from Kampong Speu is certified with geographical indication (GI) status, which restricts its production to only three of Cambodia’s 176 districts.
How is sugar made?
A species of perennial grass, sugar cane accounts for most of the sugar production in the world. The sugar comes from the plant’s sap, which is collected when the stalks are fed through rollers and crushed. As a general rule, making refined sugar is a multistep process that starts with straining and boiling the sap, evaporating the water to encourage crystallization of the sugars, and then separating the sugar crystals with a centrifuge.
Some versions of muscovado and balicucha are considered unrefined sugar, as they do not go through the centrifuge process, which allows them to retain their molasses content.
In comparison, palm sugars are made by collecting sap from various parts of the palm tree (there are different kinds of palm trees, which all belong to the Arecaceae family). The sap is then boiled to remove any moisture, leaving the thick syrup to cool and harden into chunks. It’s a time-sensitive process, as the collected sap will begin to ferment unless it is processed immediately.
Palm sugar is also considered unrefined sugar; it comes in different colors (from mahogany to toffee), textures (powder to syrup), and consistencies. The most important differentiating factor is that different palm sugars come from different genera of palm trees. The famous gula melaka of Malaysia, known as gula jawa in Indonesia, comes from coconut trees of the genus Cocos. Gula aren comes from the sugar palm tree of the genus Arenga and is known in Indonesia as pohon enau or pohon aren. Gula apong comes from nipa palm trees or mangrove palms of the genus Nypa. The sugars are processed differently according to the traditions of the place, caramelized to reach their desired colors, and poured into a container to harden and take shape. Over the years, these containers have been everything from bamboo stalks to coconut husks.
Do all of these sugars just taste… sweet?
Yes and no. While all of them are inherently sweet, they can have different flavors depending on how they are made and stored. For example, panutsa de bao has a hint of coconut flavor because it is made using a coconut mold. There’s also a sweetness scale. “On one end of the scale is granulated white sugar, which is very sweet, and the other end is rock sugar, which takes longer to dilute and is best used for drinks like chrysanthemums tea,” says Helen Goh, a recipe developer and the co-author of Sweet. Somewhere in the middle are muscovado sugar and the various palm sugars.
But even this scale is not terribly accurate because Southeast Asian sugars, particularly the palm sugars, have depth and complexity. Goh describes the taste of palm sugar (or specifically the Malaysian version, gula Melaka) as “a deep molasses flavor,” while Pailin Chongchitnant, the Thai Canadian chef behind the website Hot Thai Kitchen and the YouTube channel Pailin’s Kitchen, describes the taste of (Thai) pure palm sugar as a slightly floral butterscotch candy.
“It’s absolutely delicious and melts in your mouth into a creamy texture. I can eat it straight up like candy,” Chongchitnant says via email. “The stuff on the market isn’t pure, however. They all have various degrees of white sugar mixed in, so that butterscotch flavor isn’t as pronounced and the texture is a bit more granulated, but it’s still tasty.”
Depending on the type of tree the sugar sap came from and how it’s processed, palm sugars in Malaysia and Indonesia can have a whole range of flavors, which translates to desserts with lots of nuance. “For many Asians, particularly the Malaysian Chinese community, saying that a dessert is not too sweet is a compliment!” Goh says with a laugh.
According to Debbie Teoh, a Nyonya chef and cookbook author from Malaysia, the taste of gula melaka is sweet at first but has a “sourish quality” toward the end that likely points to its origins as coconut sap, as folks who regularly drink unprocessed coconut water can attest to its slight tanginess. “Pure gula melaka actually melts at room temperature if left outside,” says Teoh. Leaving gula melaka out for too long can also result in mold, so keeping it in the refrigerator or freezer is necessary for long-term storage.
How do I know which sugar to use?
It is important to point out that many of these sugars are produced by cottage industries, so there can be notable differences between batches, depending on the production methods and available natural resources to store the sap, like coconut husks. Still, the first thing to consider is texture, since sugars come in discs, blocks, tablets, and even liquids. Balicucha, for example, is a handy aerated sugar capsule that dissolves easily in hot drinks, so it is perfect if you want a caramel-flavored coffee.
On the other hand, panutsa de bao, which is sold in a semicircle bao shape befitting its name, requires a bit more work. Sonny Mariano, a pastry chef from the Philippines, is a fan of panutsa but acknowledges that there are a few extra steps before he can use it. “Since it comes in big chunks, we have to chop it into smaller pieces first,” he says via email. “I mostly use it as a sauce, boil it with coconut milk until it’s reduced to caramel consistency, and then use it as a topping for rice cakes.”
Goh does the same with various types of nongranulated sugar. “If it comes in blocks or chunks, I grate it and use the shavings,” she says. “This way it will dissolve consistently in desserts or drinks.” Goh is also a fan of palm sugar in tablet forms, which is a fairly recent innovation. “It’s really handy because it is the equivalent of one tablespoon, and it is easy to use in syrup or drinks,” she says.
Another thing to consider is the prominence of the sugar in the dish you’re making and its potential for substitution. Mariano’s advice for home cooks is to “taste and then visualize if it will work in the recipe you are cooking.” Muscovado is one of the easiest sugars to use as a substitution for others. “I usually substitute muscovado when the recipe calls for brown sugar, as with its molasses content it acts more like a brown sugar in baked recipes,” Mariano says. “Aside from the flavor note, the sweetness level varies as well.”
As for palm sugar, Chongchitnant uses it as a substitute for most types of sugar and vice versa. “Traditionally, palm sugar was our only source of sweetness in sweet and savory dishes, but with the introduction of granulated sugar, which is more convenient and much cheaper, people switched to granulated sugar in savory dishes instead,” she says. “In small amounts, it just doesn’t really make a difference. And in savory dishes, “sweetness is often added just to balance the salt and/or acid, not to provide a sweet flavor to the dish,” Chongchitnant continues. “And with many flavors of herbs, spices, and seasonings, the little bit of palm sugar just doesn’t really come through. There are some dishes where it does make a difference, such as pad thai, tamarind shrimp, or any other dish where the sweetness is prominent.”
If you have limited access to palm sugar and are slowly rationing it, Chongchitnant recommends using it only in sweet dishes. “If you want to really taste the palm sugar, it is best used where there aren’t many competing flavors and where the sweetness is the main taste, such as desserts,” she says.
This explains why gula melaka is the star of many famous Nyonya desserts in Malaysia. Sago gula melaka is possibly the simplest dessert that features gula melaka: It’s just cooked sago pearls served with fresh coconut milk and melted gula melaka. Gula melaka is also the filling for onde-onde, the fun-to-make glutinous rice balls that are rolled in grated fresh coconut. If you’d like something more challenging, try glutinous rice desserts with gula melaka, such as pulut inti or kuih koci.
If you’re interested in learning to cook with the sugars typically found in Southeast Asian cooking, here are a few recipes to help you get started.
Recipes where sugar is prominent:
Helen Goh’s black rice pudding (pulut hitam)
Hot Thai Kitchen’s fried ice cream with pineapple caramel sauce
Rasa Malaysia’s stuffed glutinous rice balls (onde-onde)
Recipes where sugar is not the key focus:
Pickled Plum’s Vietnamese dipping sauce
Hot Thai Kitchen’s Thai green curry
Annie Hariharan is a Malaysian Australian feature writer who focuses on food, food history, and pop culture. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.
Alia Ali is a translator, cook, and co-founder of the Malaysian food website Periuk. She is based in Langkawi, Malaysia.
Sophia Marie Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.