Recognizable by its spherical head of 25 to 40 leaves crowning a slender trunk that can reach up to 20 to 25 meters, Borassus flabellifer (also called Palmyra palm) is a palm of the Arecaceae family. It is a dioecious species; that is, a tree that can have either male or female flowers, and the sap is rich in sugar.
Native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the sugar palm should not be confused with the oil palm whose intensive cultivation in plantations has contributed to deforestation.
Here, on the contrary, the sugar palm trees, scattered over the rice-growing plains, help maintain agro-biodiversity and traditional know-how.
Its tall silhouette, rising up to the sky above the rice fields, has drawn a landscape so typical of the kingdom since time immemorial that the sugar palm tree is, like the prestigious Angkor temples, an emblem of Cambodia.
Since very ancient times, the sugar palm tree has been part of the daily life of Cambodians. A legend even says that a king ordered every citizen to plant a palm tree to be part of the Khmer people.
It bears many products: sugar, fruit, vinegar, wine, distilled alcohol, wood used in carpentry or for the construction of canoes, leaves for the roofs of houses and multiple objects, root used in pharmacopoeia, fibers, etc. It is said here in Cambodia that there are 108 different uses for the sugar palm. Its multiple resources explain why the palm tree is so closely linked to the life of farmers in Cambodian rice fields.
However, its exploitation to obtain sugar is not without danger because it requires climbing to its summit. In the days of the French Protectorate, in compensation for the dangerous nature of their profession, climbers were exempt from tax.
Today, Cambodia is estimated to have around 2,500,000 sugar palm trees.
While many uses of the palm are tending to disappear, obtaining Protected Geographical Indication status for Kampong Speu palm sugar highlights the extraordinary richness of Cambodia’s sugar palm in the past and present.
|Currently, there are approximately 150 families producing Kampong Speu palm sugar. One family maintains around 20 to 30 sugar palm trees. In total, currently 3,600 palm trees are cultivated for GI palm sugar.
Producers have learnt palm sugar production techniques from their parents. The know-how is transmitted from generation to generation. Most often, three or four family members are participating in the production and each one has an important role to play. Traditionally, men collect the sap while women are responsible to cook and process the sugar.
In general, one family produces around 1 to 2.5 tons of sugar per year which can generate an income of around 1,700 to 3,800 US Dollars per season. Palm sugar is produced in the dry season, from December to May, whereas most of the families grow rice in wet season. Quite often, their young adult children are also working in garment factories.
“I am proud that my family makes a product that is good for your health.” At 62, Mrs. Sao Ny has a shining eye when it comes to talking about her palm sugar.
It has been almost 40 years since she and her husband, Mr. Soung Lout, also 62, produced their first kilos of this beautiful beige-orange sugar that they know is the delight of consumers. They learned this know-how from their parents and, every year from December to May, the couple reproduce the immemorial gestures of this production process.
The job is demanding. Their working day begins long before sunrise. Around 3 am, Lout climbs the palm trees. As soon as he brings back his first sap-filled bamboo tubes, Ny starts cooking. They heat, they stir, they sift, they put to dry. This ritual ends around 6 p.m. as the rice fields fall asleep in the setting sun.
With its 24 palm trees, the family, a member of the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association since 2015, produces around two tons of sugar each year.
“Healthy sugar! That’s what I like,” Ms. Ny insists.
|Mrs. Kith Ken, village of Prey Kdouch
It was by helping her parents when she was 14 that Mrs. Kith Ken, 40, took her first steps in palm sugar production. Through the dry seasons of her younger years, they passed on to her the skills that they themselves had received from their parents.
She joined the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association in 2013, and today, together with her husband, Mr. Touk Porn, she processes the sap from 40 palm trees located in the IGP area. “40 palm trees are a lot of work! Especially with the quality requirements of the Geographical Indication”, emphasizes Ken, whom is supported her two daughters in her tasks, upon returning from high school.
During the harvest period, the working days are long. But Mrs. Kith Ken is not complaining. The income from some three tons of sugar for the season allows her to consider a few future projects: improving her house and paying for her daughters’ education. She knows her efforts are not in vain!
When the harvest season is over and the rains come, Mrs. Kith Ken returns to cultivate the family rice fields while her husband becomes a construction worker. Until the time of sugar and its golden crystals returns.
Sugar palm trees are cultivated extensively on the bunds delimiting the rice fields or on village lands.
Harvesting of the sap, which does not affect the health of the tree, begins about 15 years after planting and can last around 80 years.
Kampong Speu palm sugar is produced only in the dry season, from December to the end of May. During the production season, the harvesters climb twice a day – in the morning and in the evening – to the top of the tree using a bamboo ladder attached to the trunk to incise the inflorescences (male or female). The sap from the inflorescences then flows for about 10 to 15 hours into receptacles, traditionally bamboo tubes. It is finally collected in the morning and evening to avoid fermentation. Processing of the harvested sap must begin within two hours of collection.
For Kampong Speu palm sugar, the use of traditional bamboo containers to harvest the palm sugar sap is mandatory. Plastic containers for sap harvest are banned.
The sap is collected from the inflorescences at the top of palm trees, 15 to 25 meters high. To climb, the producers use bamboo ladders, attached to the trunk. Alternating on either side of the bamboo stem, the side shoots serve as steps to the top of the palm tree.
Sometimes, if the trees are very close to each other, the grower uses other bamboo stems to make bridges between the tops of the palm trees.
To incise the flower, the harvesters use a knife – “kambet thnot” – specially intended for this purpose which they sharpen daily.
For Kampong Speu palm sugar, the sap is harvested in tubes – “bampong” – traditionally made of bamboo. Between each sap collection, these containers are meticulously rinsed and washed in cold water, then in boiling water. The use of gutters – “phnear” –, to channel the sap of several flowers to the container, is prohibited. The producer can put a maximum of 1 female flower or 4 male flowers per container. The use of chemicals, such as sodium hydrosulphite to limit fermentation or to blanch palm sugar, is absolutely prohibited for the IG Palm Sugar from Kampong Speu at all stages of production.
Small pieces of wood or bark of “popèl” (Shorea cochinchinensis, Hopea recopei and Shorea roxburghiana) are put in the containers for collecting the sap. The tannins of this wood prevent fermentation and thus ensure a better quality of sugar.
Traditionally, the sap is heated in a large cauldron to concentrate the sugar by evaporation.
At the end of the process, the cauldron is removed from the stove and the sugar is quickly “churned” to facilitate crystallization and obtain its creamy caramel color.
The use of improved stoves is mandatory for the production of Kampong Speu palm sugar (geographical indication), in order to reduce fuel consumption (less CO2 emissions) and prevent smoke and ash from affecting the quality of the sugar.
|Palm sugar benefiting from the GI status of “Kampong Speu Palm Sugar” enjoys a solid reputation for quality. Deep sandy soils are a key factor in the quality of sugar. The sap is more concentrated, explaining the aromatic richness of this sugar. In addition, the Kampong Speu region is characterized by low rainfall, which contributes to the high sugar concentration of the sap.
To ensure the best possible quality, the production of palm sugar from Kampong Speu is limited to the districts of Oudong and Samrong Tong in the province of Kampong Speu and Ang Snuol in the province of Kandal, as well as within these three districts, to areas with sandy soils (red-yellow podzol soils) which have good drainage capacity. When a new producer requests to produce under the geographical indication, the soils where their palm trees are located are inspected to verify compliance with these criteria.
Palm sugar produced in Kampong Speu enjoys a strong reputation of quality. Deep sandy soils are a key factor of the quality of the sugar. Sap appears to be more concentrated, which explains the rich aromatic level of Kampong Speu palm sugar. In addition, the Kampong Speu area is characterized by low rainfall that contributes to the high sugar concentration of the sap.
To ensure the best quality Kampong Speu palm sugar production is restricted to the districts of Oudong and Samrong Tong district in Kampong Speu province and Ang Snuol in Kandal province, and within these three districts, limited to areas with sandy soils (Red-yellow podzol soils) and with good drainage capacities. When a new producer applies to produce under the Geographical Indication, the soils where his/her palm trees stand are inspected to verify conformity.
Kampong Speu palm sugar has a light yellow-brown color, aromatic richness and a slightly spicy-caramelized taste, naturally rich in fructose.
Kampong Speu palm sugar can be produced and marketed in the following forms:
Called “Skor pieng” or “Skor sach” in Khmer, palm sugar in paste is the traditional form of the product. It is an essential ingredient in Cambodian cuisine. To obtain this form of sugar, the boiling time should be a maximum of three hours and the kneading should take at least 15 minutes. This soft-textured paste has the property of binding the other ingredients in preparation, bringing its aromatic notes and softening the strength of the chili in spicy dishes.
Its shelf life is shorter than other forms. Over time, the residual water can separate from the paste and liquid develops on the surface. However, this does not make the product unfit for consumption and does not significantly affect its flavor!
Called “Skor paèn” in Khmer, it is another traditional form of the product. Most often shaped into round “pucks” in molds made from palm leaves, it makes a delicious candy. This form requires a boiling time of 3 hours and 15 minutes and a mixing time of at least 20 minutes before it is molded then dried in the open air.
With its beautiful yellow / light brown color and its slightly caramelized note, Kampong Speu palm sugar benefits, in addition to its sweet flavor, from its aromatic touch which brings something extra to your drinks, dairy desserts, pastries, etc. It is obtained after boiling the sap for 3 hours and 15 minutes and a mixing time of at least 30 minutes. By sieving, only crystals of a maximum diameter of 1.5 mm are retained.
Sugar syrup is produced after boiling for a maximum of two and a half hours. This liquid form of palm sugar is ideal for cooking, to flavor hot and cold drinks and cocktails, and add a delicious flavor your crepes and pancakes!
Kampong Speu palm sugar isn’t just sweet. It is characterized by its delicate aroma and special flavor.
With its delicious smell of caramel, it stands out for its warm and amber notes, subtly mixing aromas of honey and vanilla.
Kampong Speu palm sugar: a healthy alternative to refined sugars