-: rapadura, muscovado, demerara, panela, jaggery, ghur, date sugar :-
All of the traditional sugars listed below derive from different parts of the globe but they all share one thing in common – the processing of sugar through evaporation rather than centrifugal force. The FAO defines such whole cane sugars as “Generally derived from sugar cane through traditional methods without centrifugation.”
When cane juice is evaporated many of the plants natural nutrients (referred to as molasses) remain in tact, the result of which is a whole brown sugar brick or loaf with a caramel flavour. This should be contrasted to more modern refining techniques whereby the sucrose is separated from the other plant material through centrifugal force powered by fossil fuels.
Although traditional methods of sugar extraction vary from tropical region to tropical region some of the key extraction methods remain the same. Typically the farmer or local miller will crush the stems of the canes in order to extract as much cane juice as possible. The resulting juice is sieved to remove impurities, heated up and stirred with paddles until crystallisation occurs. The cane juice is then poured into wide pans to optimise surface space and left to evaporate until the sugar becomes hard.
Although these traditional whole cane sugars are sometimes referred to as “raw” this is not strictly true. Heat is used to help form crystals. As such the enzymes present in the plant will have been destroyed. They can be called “whole” however in that many of the plant’s minerals are retained.
As we have seen with traditionally harvested Celtic sea salt whereby 82% of the total consists of sodium chloride, with the remaining 14 -18 % made up of macro-minerals, so too with traditionally prepared evaporated sugars. 80-90% of the sugar is pure sucrose with the remaining total made up of vital trace minerals including calcium, chloride, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, chromium, cobalt, Vitamins A, Beta Carotene, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic acid and Vitamin C.
These trace minerals may help the eater digest some of the high concentration of glucose and fructose present in traditional sugars. However, just as salt should be eaten in moderation so too should sugar. The key difference being no one could force themselves to over-eat on salt but it is far too easy to eat more and more and more of the sweet stuff. Thus, even with these traditional sugars one should be wary of over-consuming them.
Rapadura, Panela, Chancaca, Pilonchillo, Demerara
These are all the names given to what is essentially the same type of whole cane sugar grown and prepared in Latin America.
Rapadura is the Portuguese name and it is made in Brazil. Panela is the Spanish name for the same whole cane sugar and it is produced in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela and Mexico. Demerara sugar stems from modern day Guyana on the north coast of South America. Guyana was until 1966 A British colony (known as British Guiana) which is why the name Demerara sugar is well known to British readers but not rapadura, panela or chancaca.
Traditionally all of Latin American whole cane sugars would have been produced through the process of evaporation not centrifugal force. If prepared correctly these sugars have a distinct taste to that of refined pure sucrose sugars. They remain sweet but with added flavours.
Muscovado, like rapadura, is made through evaporation in pans as opposed to centrifugal force. Sometimes referred to (somewhat confusingly) as Barbados Sugar the vast majority of muscovado production is now in the Philippines. It is darker in colour than rapadura and retains a lot more natural moistness but shares rapadura’s high mineral and nutrient content.
Jaggery is a form of brown, whole sugar made in Africa from cane plants and date sugar. Although exact methods vary the basic principle that the cane juice is evaporated rather than separated by centrifugal force remains the same, which is why this dark brown sugar retains pleasant flavours alongside the sweetness of sucrose.
Ghur is the Indian word for whole, brown sugar. It is used widely in Indian cuisine and like all the other sugars has been evaporated rather than refined in a large mill relying on industrial scale centrifugal machines to separate the sucrose from the other plant material.
Dates have been used to sweeten the dishes in the Middle East for millennia. Like other sugars date sugar contains a high proportion of sucrose – i.e. fructose and glucose making it very sweet indeed. The good part is that date sugar comes with hundreds of added plant nutrients and anti-oxidants which makes it a lot less sinful than white table sugar. According to a recent study examining which traditional, natural sweeteners contained the highest proportion of anti-oxidants, date sugar came out on top.
For culinary purposes the everyday cook should be aware that date sugar does not dissolve in water in the same way that other sugars do. It does, however, taste great in some cake and bread-based foods and is highly recommended for use. The moist date sugar also tastes amazing sprinkled over raw yoghurts, buttermilks, porridge, waffles or pancakes.
Dates can also come in the form of date puree which is readily available in many middle eastern shops.