Last year at Tales of the Cocktail I gave a talk along, with David Cid of Bacardi, about sugar, syrups, and rum. A detailed write-up of that talk is on the blog Commercial Free Cocktail.
As part of that talk, I passed around a ton of samples of sugars to taste. Most of these sugars were purchased in Singapore by Michael Callahan, bar manager of 28 HongKong Street. He carried a full suitcase of them for me, so he is awesome. Many of the sugars were taken home by seminar attendees (I encouraged it), or were no longer transportable, but seven of them made it back home with me.
For those of you not there to taste them in person, I wanted to write them up. It just took me five months to do it. Here are a few notes on the sugars.
Japanese Wasanbon Sugar
This is the famous Japanese wasanbon sugar. I picked up this packet in Japantown in San Francisco. It is labelled as "Baikodo Wasanbo". Here is some information about wasanbon sugar.
Wasanbon sugar is widely used in the world of Japanese sweets.
Wasanbon is a domestically produced light yellow sugar that is
made through a traditional Japanese manufacturing process
and a particular specialty in the Shikoku region. As wasanbon
sugar is made entirely by hand and the process is quite
detailed, mass production is impossible. Due to this and other
reasons, the price is higher than for ordinary sugar. The raw
material is chikuto, a kind of sugarcane with a thin stem, and
the manufacturing process is as follows :
-Squeeze the liquid out of the chikuto using a squeezer and
make shiroshita by boiling the liquid down.
-Put the shiroshita into a big "boat" the size of a tatami (rush-
mat), and knead it while adding water.
-Put the kneaded shiroshita into a bag made of hemp on the
outside and cotton on the inside and wring it.
-Place the entire bag into a "pressing boat" made of wood,
hang weights down from the tops of the cabers and apply
pressure via the principle of leverage.
-When pressure is applied, molasses is generated from the
shiroshita. Place the shiroshita remaining in the bag, not
the squeezed molasses, into the "boat" again and repeat the
same process three to five times. The shiroshita remains in
the bag, and is sifted through a sieve after being dried.
Wasanbon sugar crystals are fine, smooth and soft and melt
in the mouth while generating an elegant sweetness. In the
world of Japanese sweets, the taste of sugar is the life of the
sweet and is a treasured part of all Japanese sweets.
That information comes from this PDF document, which sugar nerds should definitely read.
Tasting Notes: This stuff is delicious. It is soft and powdery and instantly melts on the tongue with a burst of beautiful pure sweetness and a slight afternote of molasses that you want more of (and I kinda hate molasses). Harmonious.
From the back of the package:
Taikoo Okinawa Style Natural Black Sugar is made from renowned Japanese sugarcane adopting the traditional Okinawa style of production. It is rich in the aroma of sugarcane and suitable for people from all age groups to take as a snack during leisure time.
Okinawa Style Natural Black Sugar is ideal for preparing traditional Chinese recipes such as ginger soup, black bean wine, vinegar stew, lycii fructus with longanae arillus soup. It is also a perfect match for making Chinese style dessert such as chilled myotonin and red dates congee.
Another website says:
Okinawan brown sugar is made from sugarcane grown in fields blessed with strong southern-island sunlight and minerals delivered by the ocean spray. Unlike other brown sugar, Okinawan brown sugar has a deep, rich flavor.
Not only used as a condiment, Okinawan brown sugar pieces are consumed as a sweet accompaniment to tea for relief of fatigue. Brown sugar is especially popular among women for its high iron and calcium content and is used as part of a remedy for anemia. It is also popular as a wholesome food. Use this great product regularly as part of your everyday diet.
And another website puts it more plainly:
Many Western women like to eat chocolate for comfort during their period, but Japanese women like to eat black sugar. For Taiwanese women, eating black sugar during their period is also a very common custom, probably because Taiwan is a former colony of Japan. They really eat pieces of sugar like it's candy.
Actually, the minerals like iron and calcium do help ease the tension and discomfort of a woman's period. Of course the calories of the black sugar do produce a lot of energy for this difficult time too.
Compare it to a cup of hot chocolate on a winter's day. Ginger and black sugar tea is a popular drink in almost every part of China. Apart from warming up the body, ginger tea also helps to cure colds.
Tasting Notes: Opening this packet I would swear I was smelling old Swedish licorice candy! It has a thick, raisiny aroma that reminds me of the Swedish licorice pipes. The taste isn't as dramatic as the aroma; a soft and gentle licorice that I can totally see enjoying as candy rather than sweetener.
From the package, "Star Brand Jaggery Powder is a natural sweetening substance made by concentrating sugar cane juice without any preservatives and colorings. It can be used in brewing coffee, tea, and chocolate drinks and in preparing cakes, kuih, syrups, and desserts."
Tasting Notes: It doesn't have a strong aroma, smelling like dusty dirt for the most part. In the mouth it tastes of soft molasses mixed with super high sugar notes. Kind of disjointed; as if they just mixed one good light sugar with a too-sweet one.
First off: Best.Name.Evar.
The package doesn't have much information in English. It says only, "Ingredients: chrysanthemum, sugar, honey, water," so it appears it's some sort of a mix.
It's definitely processed and shaped into these rectangular pieces that look a lot like Rice Kripies Treats.
Tasting Notes: It doesn't smell like much of anything, and the flavor is mild as well. It's crunchy like some sort of sugar candy with only a light molasses taste. I am not tasting any honey flavor. Oh well, at least the name is great.
The only English words on the package are the ingredients (sugar and water), and "Product of China".
The lumps are in the size of giant crystals, the average size being about that of Chiclet gum.
Tasting Notes: It smells only slightly of molasses but mostly just like rock candy. The lumps don't taste like anything at all until you bite into them, and then it's just like plain sugar, but a lot less sweet than typical white sugar.
Ingredients: black sugar.
This one I also found in San Francisco, and it sounds a lot like the other Japanese black sugar mentioned above.
Tasting Notes: It smells just like the other sugar too - Swedish licorice, but a little darker and more heavily baked. These chunks are much larger than in the other package, and their flavor far more white-sugar-sweet. Less interesting than the other brand of the same.
The ingredients of this package are coconut and sugar. Inside the package are four cylindrical, molasses-colored pieces of the candy.
Tasting notes: The smell is delicious, like a combination of maple sugar candy and molasses. The taste is also a bit like maple sugar candies, but more in texture than in flavor. Generally it's more brown sugary than anything else. I don't detect any coconut flavor.
This sugar I think Michael Callahan just bought in bulk in Singapore. I asked him for some more information about it. He says:
This is the famous "Orange Sugar". It is sold as you see it (in baggies) in all the Wet-Markets throughout Singapore. The base is a granulated Gula Merah (Palm Sugar). The coloring comes from additives. I have not found out what the original coloring agents were, nowadays they use modern food dyes. The color is to brighten up a local sweet dish called "Putu Mayam", an Indian dish variation adopted by the Malay people. The dish is all white and the "orange sugar" brought color and also allowed you to see how much you had added. It is wildly inconsistent and I am certain some of them must be carcinogenic. I love playing with it for making syrups as It brings a nice hue and tone to the drink with its touch of pink.
Tasting Notes: It doesn't smell like anything. Though it looks powdery, it's actually really small granules. The flavor is just of sugar, but it is pleasantly mild in sweetness. Nothing earth-shaking, but pretty nonetheless.
For more information on sugar from around the world, check the Sugar Spirit Project index at this link.