“Try it. It is better than it looks…”
I stared down at the brown round globule sitting on top of a small mound of sesame seeds. Do I really have to eat this? Usually I’m pretty open when it comes to mysterious food items, but this just seemed so… nondescript – like the taste could go in a million different directions. Of course, it didn’t help that the owner of this particular Myanmar farm was hovering right next to me, patiently awaiting my inevitable reaction with a sly smile.
Oh well. Better not to drag this one out. I tossed my head back while dumping the contents over my tongue, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
We were on the road out towards Mount Popa when Aung, the driver I had hired back in Bagan, recommended making a quick stop at one particular Myanmar farm along the way.
“You can taste some local candy and wine. All very good!”
The combination together didn’t sound particularly appealing but, at this point we had already been driving for over an hour, so a quick rest stop sounded pretty good to me.
Pulling up a few minutes later, were were immediately greeted by something right out of a history book and certainly far from anything I’d seen at the farms back in California.
“They are making peanut wine!”
Aung excitedly explained the process: Fresh peanuts from the farm are placed inside the large wooden mortar while the ox, which is attached to a tall pestle also made of wood, walks around in a wide circle, effectively crushing the peanuts.
This process continues until the peanuts have been pulverized into a dry paste and all of their liquids have drained out into a separate container below. The liquid is then fermented and finally distilled, while the paste is fed back to the ox (talk about economical!).
The result is a clear alcohol that has the slightly sweet and smooth taste of a Chinese rice wine. Quite tasty actually!
It was here that I was given the handful of mysterious munchies and urged to try. Popping it all in my mouth, I did my best not to wince in discomfort as soon as the brown clump hit my tastebuds. This stuff was SWEET! The slight flavor of the sesame seeds did little to mask what can best describe as tasting like raw sugar, mixed with corn syrup, drizzled in honey.
I quickly nodded as I grabbed for my bottle of water and did my best to rinse my mouth out before all of my teeth began to rot in place. Seeing this, both Aung and the Myanmar farm owner looked at each other and laughed.
Pointing up to the nearby coconut trees, it was finally revealed what I had eaten.
“Coconut palm sugar. Watch, he will show you.”
As Aung said this, the farm owner began to climb up the nearest tree trunk, which had been outfitted with a makeshift bamboo ladder.
Aung once again explained the process, wherein small collection containers are placed around the sap producing stems at the top. Every few days the farmer will check on them and empty the contents out into larger pots attached to his waist.
The sap is then all dumped into a metal vat and cooked down until it turns into a thick stringy syrup.
Depending on what the final product is intended to be, there are various next steps. Sometimes the syrup is cooled off and ground into a granular sugar. Other times it’s just rolled into clusters and sold as is, like what I had tried earlier.
Here though, the primary product is a type of coconut candy, made by mixing the sticky syrup with fresh shredded coconut. This was still incredibly sweet, but nowhere near as cloying as the solid ball of pure palm sugar.
As we pulled away from the Myanmar farm, back on the road towards Mount Popa, I couldn’t help but ask Aung if he was a fan of these palm sugar candies I had tried.
“No, no. They are much too sweet. Always makes me feel sick after I eat them.”
Thanks for looking out for me buddy.