Making Jaggery in Thailand
A loverly bunch of coconuts
The area around Samut Songkhram, about 1 hour's drive South East from Bangkok, is a very fertile fruit growing area, with groves of Coconuts, Pineapples, Mangoes, Durian, Jack Fruit, Pomelo, Water Melon, Papaya and other, lesser-known, tropical fruits - a tropical Eden.
Some of the farms still produce raw unrefined palm or cane sugar, sometimes called Jaggery, though not normally in Thailand where it is usually known as Nam Than Beuk. We were fortunate enough to be invited by Ajahn (teacher) Suchardt and his wife to visit a small production facility, hardly a factory, on a farm near his own in Bang Khonthi district, a few miles South of the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak.
On the way there, we were passed by fleets of tour vans, presumably hurrying to Damnoen Saduak, fortunately not to Bang Khonthi.
Floating Market this way?
The farm grows mainly pineapples and coconuts, but many of the coconut palms are grown for their sap rather than their fruit, so they do not produce mature coconuts. I have never seen pineapples on the bush but have often wondered how they grow: for answer see below.
Jaggery Production Process
So that's how Pineapples grow!
The palm sap is collected in a plastic tube tied beneath a cut in a palm branch high up the tree, perhaps 20 feet from the ground and rather than using ladders, the harvesters cut footholds on each side of the trunk. At this time of the year, the hot season, the sap is collected at around 3 am, each full pot being replaced by an empty, clean one. I must say the old style bamboo pots were much more beautiful but apparently more difficult to clean.
The sap is collected in plastic containers, high up the tree
The main preparation vessel is a 1 meter diameter pan (ga ta), rather like a large wok. The raw palm sap is boiled in the gat-ta for about one hour to reduce it to a syrup. Once sufficiently reduced the pan is removed from the heat and rested on an old pickup tyre, where the syrup is energetically whisked to cool it, smooth it and no doubt aerate it.
This farm has a "three pan oven" (some farms have five). The raw palm sap is divided between the three pans, each pan taking 10 tubes of sap. Around 1kg of cane sugar is added to each pan during the boiling process to ensure that the mixture will eventually solidify. The mixture is then boiled to reduce it to a thick syrup.
Ga Ta, filled with raw palm sap
The oven is kindled with dried palm fronds and then fed by waste wood piled up behind the oven; the hottest part is, of course, nearest to the fire but even the furthest pan eventually boils. It looks like it gets pretty hot..
The Burning Fiery Furnace
Each pan (ga-ta) is about 1 meter in diameter and looks like a large wok.The main cooking pan is the one at the end of the oven nearest to the fire and boils first. Below is a photo of the production line. In the foreground are the used collecting vessels waiting to be washed with one of the basketware hoods partly visible above, then pans three, two and one, with the hot end of the oven at the far end. Pan number two is partly covered by a plastic box holding a sieve; scum from the boiling sap is periodically skimmed off and tipped into this sieve so that any liquid in the residue can drip back into the pan below.
The production line
Once pan number one is boiling it is covered by a basketware hood to stop spillage and sometimes this is also necessary for pan number two: the boiling mixture can foam up to half way up the basket. When the sap in number one pan has reduced sufficiently, which takes about one hour, it is removed from the fire and replaced by a fresh one. The contents of pan number two are then scooped into the new one, and the sap from pan number three scooped into pan number two.
The basket is placed over the hottest pan to prevent spillage
Pan number three, still on the oven, is then filled with water and, when the water is hot, the pan itself is cleaned and afterwards the used collecting pots which are then stacked ready for the following night's harvest.
After removal from the oven, pan one is placed on an old pickup tyre and whisked vigorously to cool and aerate it.
The raw sugar is thoroughly mixed by hand to cool and aerate it.
When the fresh jaggery is nearly solid it is scooped into bowls covered by plastic sheets, weighed to make sure it is precisely 1kg, then left to cool thoroughly and solidify.
Each pan produces ten 1kg packs of jaggery. We bought several packs, one for ourselves, others for our neighbours. It does taste delicious by the way, quite unlike any sugar you can get in the supermarket.
Many thanks to our hosts Ajahn Suchardt and his wife for a delightful day in Samut Songkhram.
To conclude on a cautionary note: coconuts can be more than 2 kg in weight and can fall from around 40 feet up. One missed me by about 6 inches one time on a beach in Rayong, the impact splitting the three inch thick wooden table at which I was sitting - shudder to think what it would have done to my head.
Never sit under a coconut tree