In 2015, when I published a Taiwanese cookbook, I introduced many people to the delights of dried baby shrimp, fermented black soybeans, and black vinegar. However, due to the relative scarcity of one ingredient in the United States, I purposefully left it out of the recipes. It was rock sugar, a common sweetener in Taiwanese and Chinese kitchens, frequently melted into teas, tossed into braises, and used to add sweetness to stir-fries. Instead, I suggested substituting brown or white sugar in recipes like red-braised pig’s knuckle or three-cup chicken. I now feel bad about it.
Sugar, in its various forms, is universally bad for you: it rots your teeth, causes diabetes, lifts you up, and then crashes you down. And sugar has a tumultuous history: its production fueled colonialism around the equator, where sugarcane thrives and acted as a catalyst for the transatlantic slave trade. However, refined, granulated white sugar made from sugarcane or sugar beet cannot be overlooked in the culinary world. It serves as the foundation for fluffy cakes, gooey cookies, jams, and jellies.
We also can’t ignore traditional white sugar alternatives from around the world, such as clear crystals of rock sugar and hard blocks of jaggery, panela, kokuto, and other cane or palm sugars that aren’t commonly used in American recipes. Simply put, “sugar” is not the one-dimensional box of Domino’s you keep in your pantry—especially once you leave the Western world. Recognizing the existence of different types of sweeteners and their differences from white sugar can add nuance to dishes as well as a deeper understanding of the culture at large.
Rock sugar is the result of further processing refined sugar—Gong compares it to ghee versus butter—creating a sort of blank canvas candy that is occasionally sold in candy stores in a rainbow of colors and flavors. The practice dates back to at least the 16th century when it was included in the Ben Cao Gang Mu, a traditional Chinese medicine classic. The sparkling rocks are prized for their purity, but on the other end of the sugar-processing spectrum, there are many less-refined sugar products with their own set of benefits.
To make sugar from sugarcane, a tall, bamboo-like reed is crushed, and the cane juice that results is boiled down to a thick, dark syrup. The sugar is then crystallized and spun through centrifuges to remove moisture; the brownish crystals can then be purified further to produce white granulated sugar. However, if you skip all of that and simply pour the boiled cane syrup into moulds, you’ll get a dense block of dark, caramel-flavored raw sugar, which has long been used as a de facto sweetener in many cultures. These non-centrifugal cane sugars vary in taste, texture, and color, and are known by various names such as muscovado, jaggery, and chancaca in parts of South America, among others.
They were frequently melted down with some water, orange peel, and cinnamon stick, and the resulting sugar sauce was the standard touch of sweetness for desserts, beverages like mote con huesillos, or pastries like sopaipillas—not by sprinkling dry crystals of sugar on top. Only it adds more than just sweetness to dishes.
Ironically, now that white sugar is widely available, chancaca is the more expensive product—roughly seven times more expensive, according to Hernandez. It’s also difficult to find in the US, but Hernandez has substituted round cakes of comparably lighter-colored panela, which are widely available at Latin markets and grocery stores.
Palm sugars, including coconut sugar, are widely used throughout Southeast Asia and come in a variety of flavors based on the type of palm tree sap used and how it is processed. They are frequently sold in mooncake-size rounds and have a crumbly and moist texture that allows you to break off just the right amount. In addition to their intense flavor, these palm sugars may have unique health benefits. Because they contain more molasses, they contain more nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants. According to Linda Shiue, author of Spicebox Kitchen, coconut sugar contains inulin, which gives it a lower glycemic index and can contribute to a healthier microbiome.
According to Lara Lee, author of Coconut & Sambal: Recipes From My Indonesian Kitchen, coconut sugar (gula jawa) is associated with helping heal a variety of ailments, ranging from coughing to bedwetting. Gula are, derived from the sap of the Arenga pinnata palm tree, has been linked to improved skin, digestion, and canker sores. Both of these sugars are used interchangeably in many Indonesian dishes, as well as in the Indonesian sweet soy sauce kecap manis. Some of Lee’s recipes in her cookbook call for coconut or palm sugar, but with a backup of brown sugar as a substitute.
It’s true that sourcing can be difficult for even the most astute cookbook writer, as language and label terms can be confusing, and options are limited depending on your proximity to an international grocery store. After all, according to Lee, people in Indonesia typically purchase whichever variety of gula is most readily available to them. And, as white sugar becomes more widely available, it is increasingly being used in everyday cooking.
Punyaratabandhu believes it is becoming increasingly difficult to find pure palm or cane sugar in the United States, and she adds that many US-based brands of coconut palm sugar are a far cry from the taste and texture of the real thing. But there is reason to be optimistic, as direct-to-consumer food companies are thriving, and sugar, like chile crisp, is a category that may be on the rise.