Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sugary Detours and Toddy Palms in Don Khong

Don Khong, South Laos - On my way back from that temple on the hill, I wasn't aware there was something else in the agenda. Kham, my motorcycle driver, decided to drop by a house along the road. He asked me if I wanted to see how sugar cubes are made from a toddy palm tree. Since 100,000 kip seemed exorbitant for a visit to a dilapidated temple on a hill west of Don Khong, I would agree on any suggestion that extends this journey; anything to optimize the price I had to pay for this afternoon ride.


To be honest, I have done this before - and even thoroughly. These sidetrips to toddy palm villages are also experienced in Cambodia (an easy detour if you're visiting Bantaey Srey), Bagan in Myanmar (another detour when you're climbing Mount Popa from Bagan), and even in various places in Tamil Nadu (India) where Borassus flabellifer is common. The plant itself goes by several common names: Asian palmyra palm, Toddy palm or Sugar Palm. It looks like a coconut tree but the leaves are spread out life a fan and the fruit is a wee bit different from coconut. The term "toddy" refers to the "sugary sap" obtained from the young inflorescence (clusters).

While the toddy palm is common in South and Southeast Asia, it isn't as common in the Philippines which has probably 99% coconut palm variety.


We stopped by a shed where a family entertains a group of tourists: three Asian women speaking French and a bald bare-chested French guy with a flushed face and a wide grin. He was inebriated. There was an attempt to explain the process but all was lost in enthusiasm, Lao chatter and French gibberish. The ladies were clearly French nationals. One of them was married to the French man who had to occasionally sit by the stool to gain his balance. Amorous and jovial, unlike many French tourists I meet along the way (you gotta lighten up, guys), he started a conversation in French since he couldn't speak English. He pointed to a tattoo at  his back, proudly declaring "she" was "My wife", he muttered in French. Curiously, the girl on his back looked Caucasian: wider eye socket, high aquiline nose, full pert breasts - and absolutely not the beautiful Lao girl she was with! But I wasn't going to point the obvious to him. Maybe when he's sober, he'll see the light of day? :)


Like the usual, the patriarch showed the "male" fruit (the huge and scary phallic object) that is admixed with the female fruit to make several by-products: there's the sweet and delicious sap/juice; this can be fermented to make wine; or concentrated to make a crude sugar called "jaggery". There are several other culinary uses - from the leaves, the fruit, the bark of the tree, the palm shoot, the sap, the sprout, etc. In fact, Tamil Nadu has supposedly accummulated an enviable bevy of culinary and gastronomical delights from the toddy palm. They call it "nungu" in Tamil Nadu - "lontar" in Indonesia and "tnaot" in Cambodia. British english sometimes refer to it as "ice apple". Huh?

The sugar cubes look like chocolates (they always do) and is one of the sweetest thing this Earth has ever produced. They are placed in palm leaf packets. I asked how much was a piece (which contains 10 pieces each). The French guy stood up (acting as the self-appointed sales person) and said "25,000 kip" which was ridiculous really. I had to laugh. Surely, he must know I had Asian currency, not Euro. Or do I look Japanese again? Each packet costs 3,000 kip - not 25,000 - so I bought 3 pieces for myself!

I didn't feel like lingering longer than necessary so I told Kham that we could go. Sunset waits for me in Muang Khong.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The Toddy Palm Tree

Lao French ladies

The toddy palm crown and its fruits. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's Gak.

The male flower/fruit (right) is a huge phallic object where sap is harvested.

Concentrated toddy sap is placed in these circular objects and dried until they curdle and form into sugar cubes.

Sugar cubes or jaggery

Sugar cubes are placed in these palm leaf containers - 10 pieces per packet, and costs 3,000 kip ($0.38) each.

Cordial patriarch

One happy French man - too happy and inebriated in fact!

He proudly shows off his naked woman tattoo supposedly inspired and inked after his Lao wife.

A French girl or a Lao lady? You decide! ;)

This is where this Lao family lives.


Anonymous said...

interesting post

beautiful photos

well covered

thanks for sharing

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Krishna! :)

Ola said...

do you eat this sugar cubes like candies?

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eye in the sky said...

@ Ola:

Yes, it's eaten like candies. It tastes like a piece of heaven and even melts in the mouth. :)

Jona said...

Good article.
Well you think this sugar is tasty, just try the sugar plam fruit, it is a delight in itself.

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Jona. I'm trying my best to remember if I have indeed tasted the sugar palm fruit... but I can't remember. I'll take note of this. It's one more thing to look forward to the next time I encounter another village like this in Asia. Thanks for the suggestion. :)