This dense-textured, full-flavoured sugar is tapped from palm trees across tropical South East Asia in much the same manner as maple syrup has been tapped for thousands of years. The palms will only produce the sweet sap once they have commenced flowering and this can take up to 15 years or more.
The agile harvesters have to shimmy up the palm trees to a height of 15 to 25 metres and soften the trunk by banging it for several days with a mallet. The tree is then tapped and a receptacle is left to catch the sap, which is known as sweet toddy, giving the harvesters the name toddy tappers. A good tapper can collect up to 400 litres a day during the dry season. They work 7 days a week and climb each tree twice a day. Apparently sick days are a no go as if the tree is not attended to for one day it will stop producing sap, rendering it useless.
Several different species of palms are used for gathering sweet toddy, including the kitul palm Caryota urens, the coconut palm Cocos nucifera and the palmyra palm Borassus flabellifer, but the most prized is the sap of the kitul palm.
The sap must be boiled within a few hours to make the palm sugar otherwise it will promptly ferment into a potent sly grog. The country where the palm sugar is being made will determine the length of time that the sap is boiled down. In Thailand the desired result is somewhat lighter in colour and texture and is packaged in glass jars so the sugar can be spooned out. It has the texture of a semi-solid liquid glucose and is pale to deep gold in colour. In other countries such as India, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia the sap is boiled down further, then poured into mould and left to set into a solid block of dense, dark brown sugar.
This form of palm sugar is known as gur in India, jaggery in Sri Lanka and Burma, gula melaka in Malaysia and gula jawa in Indonesia. It is sold in several shapes, generally cylinders and round cakes depending on whether bamboo or coconut shells were used as a mould. It must be chipped or grated before adding to a recipe.
Unlike western uses for sugar, in countries where palm sugar is produced it will be added to many savoury dishes as well as sweet ones. Most coconut based Thai curries have the twin seasoning of fish sauce and palm sugar towards the end of cooking to round out and increase the depth of flavour.