The palmyra, sugar palm tree or toddy palm, like the coconut palm, is an extremely useful tree that has many purposes. The tree provides food, beverage, utility and housing materials for local communities in South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Palm Fruit or Ice Apple ( Borassus flabellifer): the huge palmyra or sugar palm tree can grow up to 30m high and produces large brown or black shiny nuts which grow in large clusters of 6-12. Inside the nut are sticky white fibers which surround a small white kernal of delicate, delicious white fruit. The fruit’s flesh should be soft and not rubbery as this means it is stale. Palm fruit and the refreshing juice that the nut produces taste similar to coconut, although the fruit's texture is gelatinous and translucent.
In Indonesia palm fruit is used to make refreshing drinks and desserts. In Southern India, where it is called nungu, palm fruit comes into season in early April. Street vendors sell palm fruit with its husk carefully sliced so that passers by can enjoy the tiny palm sized fruit and the refreshing juice inside, perfect for a hot day. Palm fruit is highly nutritious. It is a good source of calcium, phosphorus, B complex vitamins, thiamin and riboflavin. Aside from palm fruit and its juice, the nut also produces jelly like seeds that are very sweet and slightly chewy. They have a slight nutty flavor and are popular in Thai and Malay cuisine, usually as desserts. In the west, palm fruit seeds can be bought canned or in jars with palm sugar syrup.
Toddy and Jaggery: every day at sunset men climb sugar palm trees and collect containers full of palm wine or toddy which has been tapped from the tree’s bark. The drink can be distilled or simmered down to produce jaggery, or panela as it is known in Latin America. This process is done with other varieties of sugar palms and also coconut palms.
Jaggery or panela, which is bought in block form, is more nutritious and healthy than regular sugar because it is unrefined, contains no preservatives or synthetic additives, and has minerals such as magnesium, potassium and iron. Jaggery contains slightly less calories than table sugar, has a higher glycemic index and is sweeter than table sugar. Many Asian chefs swear that jaggery is less stogy or sickly sweet than regular sugar.
In Indian cookery, where it is known as gul, jaggery is used in vegetarian curries and dals and in Myanmar it is eaten by children as a sweet snack with green tea. Mahatma Gandhi recommended jaggery as part of his vegetarian, goats milk diet. He believed that consuming jaggery instead of sugar resulted in a slower rise in blood sugar.
In Cambodia, where the palmyra is the national tree, nothing goes to waste. The seedlings yield starch that is cooked with rice, fish and spices and makes a nutritious staple food for the masses. The roots and flowers of the tree have numerous medicinal uses. The tree's timber, cordage and brushes are used for building materials. And the 30-40 large leaves that each tree produces are used for making woven hats, mats, baskets, roof thatch and fans for Buddhist priests.
Palm fruit or ice apple kernals: Gunter market, Southern India.
Images from wikimedia.com and flickr.com with creative commons licence.