The sweet science

(No.3, Vol.8,Jun-Jul Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Climbing to collect palmyra juice, An Giang Province.
Photo: Tran Viet Dung

A field of palmyra trees at dawn, An Giang Province. Photo: Nguyen Huu Danh

Cooking palmyra juice, An Giang Province. Photo: To Hoang Vu

The palmyra has long been a source of sugar
for the Khmer people

To others, palmyra sugar is the specialty of this area, but to the Khmer people it is a gift from heaven and earth. Many families here have been making it for generations.
The history of sugar making has turned into a legend that Khmer people have passed down through generations. It says that once upon a time, a peasant took a nap at noon under a palmyra tree. Suddenly, he woke up as a drop of a heavenly sweet liquid fell into his mouth. He sat up, looked around and couldn’t figure out what happened. Curious, he climbed the tree and finally found that the sweet drop fell from a broken bud at the top of the tree. He fervently poured the liquid into the bamboo section that he used to store drinking water and brought home to show to his wife and children as a godsend.
Palmyra juice can’t be kept for long because it quickly ferments. So the Khmer people came up with the idea of brewing wine and condensing the juice to make sugar.
Palmyra juice can be harvested and processed six months in a year. The duration of the period depends on the length of the sunny dry and hot season. The longer and the more scorching the hot season is, the more sugar it yields.Palmyra juice is extracted from cuts on a bud at its top, not from the fruits. However, each tree has only two to three buds that give good juice. The rest are left to produce fruits which are also suitable for consumption.
Palmyra juice collection is a tough job that requires stamina and skills, a job for young strong men. They use a tall bamboo trunk with many branches cut short as a ladder to climb up to the top, where they make cuts on a bud for the juice to ooze out. In the past, they used to use bamboo sections to collect the juice, but now the bamboo has been replaced by plastic containers that are much easier to handle.
There is only a short period of time in a day when the juice quality is the sweetest and is ready to be collected. After it is taken, the top slice of the bud is cut away and a new cut is made for the new juice to continue to accumulate.
The juice has to be cooked within 24 hours after the collection or it may easily become sour. It is boiled in a big pot on an earthen oven. The sweet liquid thickens, acquires a light fresh yellow color and usually gets cooked after four hours. With experience, one can estimate the sugar content of the juice, and the amount of lime to be added in order to neutralize the sourness in the sugar. The pot of cooked sugar, thick but still liquid, is taken down and continues being stirred until the sugar curdles.

*The article in Vietnamese was printed on The Gioi Di San

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