Palm Sugar

In Making Food on April 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Week 9, part 1
Palm Sugar

I really wanted to do an-every-kind-of-sugar-in-the-pantry taste test, but first I had to call the cops.

I live in Lakeview, a pleasant, tree-filled neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. More specifically, I live in Wrigleyville, an also pleasant, also tree-filled neighborhood immediately surrounding Wrigley Field. Two hundred and eighty-five days out of the year, our neighborhood’s a fantastic place to live. On Cubs home game days, however, it’s a yowling pit of drunken lunacy, starting early and going late.

One auspicious Saturday morning, I woke up to the strains of some terrible song with terrible lyrics (“put it in your mouth”? Really?) blaring through the apartment; our just-barely-21-year-old neighbors had turned their stereo speakers to face out of their windows, and were already dragging chairs and tables out onto the sidewalk, setting up coolers and the ubiquitous Chicago-summer-sidewalk game that goes by, variously, Bean Toss, Bags, Baggo and Cornhole. No big deal, really; people basically live on their sidewalks in the summer around here, though I don’t get why the people with the loudest stereos always play the worst music with the dumbest lyrics. (“We grindin’ with passion ’cause it’s your birthday”? “I’m the plumber tonight, I’ll check your pipes”? Are you kidding me?) I iced some coffee, shut the windows, and pulled all of the ingredients for pad thai and my sugar-by-sugar taste test out of the cabinets.

And that’s when they started with the bullhorn. A professional-grade bullhorn with a handheld microphone. And a built-in siren.

For the first hour, the drunk kid with the bullhorn simply played the role of sidewalk narrator; it was kind of like a Spaulding Gray play but with more beer and concrete. “And a guy’s walking past us. He’s wearing jeans and a black belt. Flipflops. He’s shaking his head at us. Hey, buddy, want a beer? Okay. Hey, two blonde girls wearing Cubs jerseys.”

I figured it would get old; I tried to ignore it. Apparently hearing yourself narrating through a bullhorn’s pretty entertaining, though, because this went on for a solid hour. But I guess it did get old eventually, because then he started using the siren function on the bullhorn, trying to fool cars into pulling over. He also began threatening to write citations for the various violations committed by the startled drivers: speeding, reckless endangerment, encroaching on his turf, being generally uncool.

After another hour of earsplitsville, I’d had it. I called 311, Chicago’s non-emergency service request hotline, and told the dispatcher about the drunk kid outside of my apartment with a bullhorn, attempting to issue moving violations. He started laughing.

“That’s pretty much the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.

“It is,” I said, “until it turns into the most annoying thing you’ve ever heard.”

He told me to call 911 and report a drunken disturbance.

“Are they going to arrest this kid for impersonating an officer?” I said.

“Do you want them to?” he asked.

“Kind of,” I said. The kid hit the siren button again. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

“Call 911,” he said, still laughing. “I hope your day gets better.”

When I called 911, that operator didn’t laugh at all. A cop was on the scene in less than 90 seconds. (Granted, on a game day in Wrigleyville, there’re cops and paddywagons every fifty feet, but still. Impressive.) He pulled up on an ATV, pointed at the stereo and the bullhorn, and said, “Turn that thing down and that thing off.”

When the kid started to argue (and who argues with a cop? Especially a Chicago cop? A Chicago cop with a beer gut and a buzzcut, who’s got 40 years and 150 pounds on you, and carries a gun to boot?), the cop gave him a series of choices, some of which involved turning down the stereo and retiring the megaphone, others of which were decidedly less pleasant and more expensive/traumatic. Suffice it to say, things rapidly got much, much quieter, and I returned to the kitchen.

I’d picked up a bag of palm sugar at Patel Brothers, without any real motivation for buying it beyond the sugar looking kind of cool in the bag at the store; turns out that it looked cool in my hand at home, too:

Palm sugar, a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine, comes from the sap of palm trees. After boiling, the reduced sap is whipped and filled into molds, or dropped in small disc-shaped lumps, and left to cool. The texture’s firm but not rock hard; you can break the discs with your hands, grate or shave off what you need, or chop the sugar with a chef’s knife. Lots of pad thai recipes call specifically for palm sugar — but would it really taste any different than the other sweeteners lurking around my pantry?

I lined up tasting portions of granulated sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar (top to bottom in the rectangular dish), honey (on the right) and dark agave nectar (on the left), and embarked on a sugar high:

The white table sugar tasted, well, white. Clean, simple, straightforward; think basic sugar cookie. The brown sugar was caramelly with more pronounced sweetness; it tasted like chocolate chip cookie dough sans the chocolate. The palm sugar had a completely different texture than its granulated brethren: it dissolved instantly on the tongue, with an almost powdered-sugar-like smoothness.  It also tasted richer, a little nuttier, a bit like those walnut-powdered-sugar shortbread cookies that are called Mexican Wedding Cookies or Russian Tea Cookies or Viennese Sugar Balls or Italian Butter Nuts. The honey tasted like summer, cloying and sticky and intense; the agave nectar was super-sweet, light-bodied, clean and bold.

But the question remained: would using the palm sugar in my pad thai make any appreciable difference? And, more importantly, when would the bullhorn rear its ugly head once more?

  1. I think the only thing that would make this story better is a picture of the cop arguing with the drunk kid. Too funny! (Well, maybe not so much for you at the time, but it’s pretty funny now.)

  2. best opening to a cooking post ever. my guess on the pad thai: not a huge difference, but you’d have to do a blind experiment to know for sure. i recommend cooking up two batches and testing it on the bullhorn kid.

    • I thought about doing a couple of batches, but inertia (and hunger) won out over intellectual curiosity. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you for the relevance of your avatar photo [is that redundant?].

  3. OMG, I’m sure the Palm Sugar recipe was interesting, but I was so amused by the neighbor with the bull horn that I just skimmed that part. I can’t wait to visit ya’ll again – I love your neighborhood!

  4. Why not?

    Knowing that the recipe is originally from Southeast Asia where palm sugar is the traditional de rigeur sweetener, it should come out more authentic.

    You wrote it yourself, the flavor is different, not just sweet. That should be worth something.

    I suggest you try it with coffee. It even makes cheap coffee taste a bit sophisticated. 😉

  5. […] people, too. The number of hits I get for ways to deal with pork belly, black currants, guanabana, palm sugar and salt roasting are encouraging — could Smart Cabbage actually be helpful? Because that […]

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