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Gula Melaka: Cooking with Asian ingredients at home

This Month’s Ingredient: Gula Melaka (aliases: palm sugar, coconut palm sugar, gur, palm jaggery)

Gula melaka, a fabulous ingredient for Asian cooking
Gula melaka, a fabulous ingredient for Asian cooking

 

What is it?

Gula melaka is made by extracting the sap from the budding flower of a date, coconut or sago palm. The sap is boiled until it thickens, leaving a sticky sugar that is whipped and dropped in lumps on cellophane, or poured into containers, traditionally bamboo tubes, where it solidifies. The colour can vary from pale, creamy beige to rich, dark brown; and the consistency can vary from a thick gooey paste akin to creamy granulated honey, to a rock-hard block.

The flavour

Though its taste can range between deep caramel and mellow butterscotch, palm sugar is generally comparable to brown sugar and molasses – though with a more complex, richer, smokier note. The sweetness can differ from batch to batch, even within the same brand, depending on the time of year that the sap is extracted.

Where can you find it?

In the dry section of local wet-markets, and in larger branches of local supermarkets like FairPrice.

Uses

• Throughout Southeast Asia it is used as a sweetener in baking and desserts.

• Thailand: used in savoury dishes as one of the flavour foundations to balance the saltiness from fish sauce or the spiciness of chillies, especially in som tum (green papaya salad).

• India: used interchangeably with the local ingredient jaggery, made from crushed cane sugar, which has a religious significance and is offered to the deity at festivals. Also traditionally given to new mothers to help them recover their strength after childbirth.

• Myanmar: eaten pure and whole as a sweet; also known as “Burmese chocolate”.

Health benefits

• Gula melaka is considered to be a particularly wholesome sugar, retaining more mineral salts than refined sugar due to the absence of bleaching. It’s said to contain key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6.

• In Indian ayurvedic medicine, gula melaka is used to treat throat and lung infections.

• Gula melaka has a relatively low glycemic index (35 as opposed to honey’s 55) giving a steadier supply of energy so it’s an ideal sweetener alternative for children (no sugar peaks and lows in the bloodstream); it’s also reputed to be better for diabetics.

Cooking at home

Substitute refined white sugar with palm sugar (1:1) in smoothies, desserts (especially panna cotta and sticky toffee pudding) and in baking recipes.

Top tip

If you use too much spice in a curry (especially Thai curries) add some shavings of gula melaka – this sweetness cuts the heat making the spices milder and easier on the palate.

Try it in town

Gula melaka is commonly found in Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) cuisine. For a taste of the traditional dessert sago gula melaka, search out the Candlenut Kitchen (25 Neil Road) or The Blue Ginger Restaurant (97 Tanjong Pagar Road). The latter serves sago (tapioca pearls) soaked in gula melaka and chewy sea coconut, topped with crushed ice, coconut cream and a good dollop of gula melaka syrup ($4) – an irresistibly sweet and refreshing treat on a hot afternoon .

 

RECIPE

Warm and oozy gula melaka sauce for fluffy pancakes or ice cream

Sunday breakfast at home just got even better. This warm gula melaka sauce is reminiscent of maple syrup but with a more unctuous finish and a myriad of warm spicy notes. Pour over stacks of fluffy pancakes topped with sliced banana for an indulgent breakfast or drizzle over vanilla ice cream sprinkled with roasted pecans for a casual dinner party dessert with an Asian twist.

Ingredients

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 1 block of gula melaka chopped or shaved into small pieces

• A couple of tablespoons of water

• A pinch of salt

• 1 cinnamon stick

• A shake of ground allspice

• 1/2 cup heavy whipping crea

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

1. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. As the butter is melting add the salt and chopped palm sugar, stirring with a wooden spoon.

2. Add the water to help melt the sugar while you stir the mixture.

3. Once completely melted, add the cream and whisk thoroughly over a lowered heat until it thickens.

4. Take off the heat and set aside.

5. Before serving, add the vanilla extract and mix well (adding the vanilla any earlier when the sauce is too hot may evaporate the alcohol and dampen the vanilla flavours).

6. Drizzle over pancakes or scoops of ice cream, sprinkle fruit or nuts to decorate and serve with Nigella-esque gusto.

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