As a traditional kitchen ingredient second to salt, sugar has been used for centuries to provide structure, texture, flavor, and sweetness to all kinds of food. Sugar is such an important ingredient that "if you know how to use sugar, you are able to cook Sichuan food at professional level". Sugar may differ in color, flavor, sweetness, crystal size and nutrients. Each of these characteristics allows sugar to perform a variety of functions in cooking, in addition to providing a sweet taste.
The handbook "Sugar's Functional Roles in Cooking & Food Preparation" provides a quick and concise reference on the functional roles sugar plays in foods. It discusses how sugar reacts in food preparation and why it reacts as it does. Instead of repeating these knowledge here, This shopping guide discusses different types of sugar at the view point of Chinese cooking and how to recognize them at Asian grocery stores even if there is no English name on product packaging label.
With the precepts of Chinese food therapy below, sugar is classified as warm, neutral and cool in nature.
Chinse Food Therapy
Chinse food therapy is a mode of dieting rooted in Chinese understandings of the effects of food on the human health. Its basic precepts are a mix of folk views and concepts drawn from traditional Chinese medicine.
Chinse food therapy classifies Food items as heating, cooling and neutral. Heating food is typically "high-calorie, subjected to high heat in cooking, spicy or bitter, or 'hot' in color (red, orange)", and includes red meat, innards, baked and deep-fried goods, and alcohol. They are to be avoided in the summer and can be used to treat "cold" illnesses like excessive pallor, watery feces, fatigue, chills, and low body temperature caused by a number of possible causes, including anemia. Green vegetables are the most typical cooling food, which is "low-calorie, watery, soothing or sour in taste, or 'cool' in color (whitish, green)". They are recommended for "hot" conditions, such as rashes, dryness or redness of skin, heartburns, and other "symptoms similar to those of a burn", but also sore throat, swollen gums, and constipation.
Traditionally, Chinese brown sugar is warm, white sugar is neutral, but rock sugar is cool in nature. Many well-known Chinese recipes benifit of the nature of different sugars.
How Is Sugar Made
To understand the basic distinctions between the different types of sugar, you must first understand how sugar is made. Historically, sugar was the predominant sweetener in China and it came from sugarcane which grows up to 6 feet high and resembles bamboo
Sugarcane stalks are cut and squeezed to extract its natural juice and the waste bagasse is discharged. The juice is then clarified with lime and heated by burning the dried bagasse until the required concentration is reached around 105°C when most of the moisture has been boiled off and crystallisation is almost ready to start.
- Traditional brown sugar is a concentrated product of the cane juice without separation of the molasses and crystals. It can vary from golden brown to dark brown in color and contains up to 50% sucrose, up to 20% invert sugars, moisture content of up to 20%, and the remainder made up of other insoluble matter such as ash, proteins and bagasse fines.
- Water is further removed by evaporation in vacuum containers. The resulting supersaturated solution is seeded with sugar crystals. The sugar crystallize out from the solution as raw sugar and the residual fluid is called molasses, a by-product of the process. White granulated sugar is refined from the crystalized raw sugar. Modern brown sugar is often produced by adding the sugarcane molasses back to the completely refined white granulated sugar with an exact ratio of molasses to sugar crystals. In some cases, caramel and invert sugars are added in small amounts to enhance the color and texture.
White Granulated Sugar （白砂糖）
White granulated sugar is an all-purpose sugar available in all supermarkets. It contains 99.9% sucrose, refined from the natural sugars that occur in the sugar cane but with other nutrients completely removed. White granulated sugar come in varying crystal sizes to provide unique functional characteristics appropriate for specific need.
If you don't know which brand to buy, Dmino sugar is the right choice in US local markets. If a recipe calls for sugar without specification, it means white granulated sugar that everyone is familar with.
White granulated sugar is neutral in both therapeutic nature and taste. It does not have Chinese medicinal value ecept providing energy.
Brown Sugar （赤砂糖）
Brown sugar is the white granulated sugar with molasses added back in for the lovely molasses flavor and cooking moisture. It has no meaningful nutritional benefits over white granulated sugar. The amount of molasses accounts for the color and flavor differences. Dark brown sugar contains about 6.5% molasses by weight and 2% total water and has a deeper color and stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar which has about 3.5% molasses by weight and 1% total water (plain white sugar contains only about 0.5% water).
The food therapeutic nature of brown sugar is close to neutral. It cannot substitute Chinese brown sugar which is warm in nature. When a Western recipe calls for brown sugar, it refers to light brown sugar unless otherwise specified. However, if a Chinese recipe asks for brown sugar, it means Chinese brown sugar.
Brown sugar should be stored in an airtight container to keep it from losing moisture and becoming solidified. If the sugar is solidified, a simple way to soften it is to place the hard brown sugar in a bowl, top with a wet paper towel and microwave for 20 to 25 seconds. The sugar will become soft and loose again
Chinese Brown Sugar （红糖）
Chinese brown sugar is a unrefined wholesome sugar directly concentrated out of the sugarcane juice without removing the molasses. It can vary from golden brown to dark brown in color and roughly contains up to 50% sucrose, up to 20% invert sugars, moisture content of up to 20%, and the remainder of impurities.
Similar to unrefined muscovado sugar, Chinese brown sugar has a sandy texture with a rich, complex flavor and retains the natural trace nutrients inherent from sugarcane juice. It is often referred to as a "Chinese superfood sweetener". It is popular in Asian cooking and is healthier than regular brown sugar found in US supermarkets.
Chinese brown sugar varies with the sugarcanes grown in different regions which have different nutritional profiles
In Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia, Chinese natural brown sugar is called black sugar. It is made from white sugarcane but has a darker color. The Japanese black sugar kokuto is produced simply by slowly cooking down pure sugarcane juice grown in Okinawa and the southwestern islands of Kagoshima. It is believed the best brown sugar in the world. Taiwanese black sugar is second to Japanese black sugar, while Malaysian black sugar is a little sour in taste.
Black sugar is an alternative name of Chinese brown sugar. It is not true that the darker the better
Chinese brown sugar is warming in therapeutic nature. Traditionally, it is widely used to boost energy and circulation. It helps not only to relieve women's menstrual discomfort during their period and during postpartum, but also to boost energy and blood regeneration. Many Western women like to eat chocolate for comfort during their period, but Japanese women like to eat black sugar, while Chinese women go one step further to take warm brown sugar drinks which are enhanced with other nursing ingredients such as ginger, jujube, ejiao, or goji berries. That's why Chinese brown sugar got named "oriental chocolate".
Chinese brown sugar can be substituted by Japanese Kokuto, Indian Jaggery, Colombian Panela, Mexican Piloncillo, Malaysian Gula Melaka, Thai Namtan tanode, Brazilian Rapadura, and Panocha in the Philippines
One new trend about brown sugar today is that different types of therapeutic brown sugars are directly manufactured by either mixing or infusing with other herbal ingredients. Instead of cooking by yourself with tradtional recipes, you can find a right one at Asian food stores and eat it directly (with water) or with your flavorite drinks.
|Therapeutic Brown Sugars|
|Ginger Brown Sugar (姜汁红糖)||
Helps relieve stomach ache and dispel pathogenic cold. Suitable for everyone except diabetics.
|Ginger Jujube Brown Sugar (枣姜红糖)||
Benefits of Ginger brown sugar, plus help blood regeneration.
|Rose Brown Sugar (玫瑰红糖)||Reinforces blood; regulates energy; helps improve mood. Suitable for women.|
|Girl's Brown Sugar (女生红糖)|
|Puerpera's Brown Sugar (产妇红糖)||Helps relieve belly pain after childbirth and promote discharge. Suitable for women after childbirth.|
|Logan jujube Brown Sugar (桂圆红糖)|
|Ejiao Brown Sugar (阿胶红糖)||Reinforces blood; nourishes yin energy; dispels pathogenic wind; nourishes organs. Suitable for everyone except children and diabetics.|
|Motherwort Brown Sugar (益母红糖)||Helps relieve belly ache; reinforces blood and energy. Suitable for adult women, including menstruating girls.|
Chinese Rock Sugar
Chinese rock sugar is lumps of white sugar crystals, crystallized from a supersaturated solution mix of sugar and water. It is also called Chinese sugar, Chinese rock candy or Chinese sugar crystal.
Chinese rock sugar looks like rock ice of water with a transparent white or yellowish color. It has a clear, neutral taste similar to white granulated sugar, but without the molasses tone of brown sugar.
Chinese rock sugar is less sweet than white granulated sugar. Because it's less sweet, it doesn't overpower the flavor of hot drink as much as white granulated sugar does. Its neutral taste enhances the natural sweetness of drink without altering the taste.
Chinese rock sugar can be directly consumed as sweet candy snack, as sweetener for drink and alcoholic Chinese spirit baijiu and as a cooking ingredient for both soups and meats.
Chinese rock sugar gives braised meat a translucent and shiny appearance and a mellow, delicate flavor that regular white granulated sugar can not do.
If all care is about taste, then white granulated sugar is a perfectly fine substitute.
There are three types of Chinese rock sugar: monocrystalline rock sugar (单晶冰糖), polycrystalline rock sugar (多晶冰糖) and brown rock sugar bar (冰片糖). They are slightly different
Polycrystalline Rock Sugar (多晶冰糖)
Polycrystalline rock sugar is the traditional rock sugar made with the traditional production techniques. It has a coarse surface and an irregular large shape, with a little sweeter taste than the monocrystal.
Based its transparent white or yellowish color, polycrystalline rock sugar is usually called white rock sugar (白冰糖) or yellow rock sugar (黄冰糖)
Polycrystalline rock sugar has a cooling therapeutic nature, with help of nursing lung, relieving cough, especially dry cough, and reducing phlegm. It is used in many well-known traditional nursing and therapeutic recipes such as rock sugar pear soup, rock sugar lotus soup, etc. For example, if a kid holds a cough for a while, a simpe rock sugar pear soup may resolve the issue in a few days. It should not be surprised that many expensive Chinese foodie gifts are made with rock sugar.
If a recipe calls for rock sugar, it means the polycrystalline rock sugar unless otherwise specified.
Monocrystalline Rock Sugar (单晶冰糖)
Monocrystalline rock sugar, also called granulated rock sugar, has a square shape and a smooth surface. Its production techniques were invented by Xinhua Food in Tianjing of China around 1960s.
Based its transparent white or yellowish color, monocrystalline rock sugar may be also called white monocrystal rock sugar (白单晶冰糖) or yellow monocrystal rock sugar (黄单晶冰糖) in Chinese
Monocrystalline rock sugar is usually used as a drink sweetener and candy snack because of its small granulated size. It is more and more widely used to sweeten tea and coffee today. Monocrystalline rock sugar provides a smooth, dedicate sweetness to tea and coffee without changing the taste as well as color. Because it's less sweet than white sugar, it doesn't overwhelm the taste as much as white sugar does. To compare, German rock sugar adds brown hue and caramel undertones.
Unfortunately, monocrystalline rock sugar does not have the same cooling therapeutic nature as polycrystalline rock sugar does. It cannot be used to substitute polycrystalline rock sugar in therapeutic recipes.
Brown Rock Sugar Bar (冰片糖)
Brown rock sugar bar, called bingpiantang in Chinese, is made from the residual fluid after rock sugar production. It is golden yellowish with a bright surface like candle and a sandy texture like brown sugar. The cut section looks like a three-layer sandwitch with a sandy middle part.
Brown rock sugar bar is similar to rock sugar in cooking, but has a light molasses undernote of Chinese brown sugar. It is widely consumed in Southern China and Hong Kong. Today, this sugar is available in Asian grocery stores in the United States.
Brown rock sugar bar looks like light Chinese brown sugar, but has the same cooling therapeutic nature and the same bright cooking appearance as polycrystalline rock sugar does. Though it has been widely used in Asian-American cooking communities in the United States, there still are a lot of senior Chinese cooks do not know the significant difference and just treat brown rock sugar bar as brown sugar.
Palm Sugar and Coconut Sugar
Although the names are used interchangeably, palm sugar and coconut sugar are not the same. Palm sugar comes from the sugar palm trees, while coconut sugar is from the coconut palm tree
Palm sugar is an unrefined, nutrient-rich, low-glycemic, natural sweetener made from sap juice which is the sugary circulating fluid of a palm tree. The sap juice from the palm tree flower buds are collected and boiled until concentrated enough. The concentrated sap is filled into bowl-shaped or cylindrical molds and cools down as the final products. The bowl-shaped cakes are formed with the split husk of the coconut, while the cylindrical forms are shaped by pouring the reduced sap into bamboo tubes.
Palm sugar varies in color, texture, consistency and sweetness depending on how long the sap was boiled. It has a caramel color and a taste that is similar to Chinese brown sugar. Palm sugar usually has a darker color and a stronger complex flavor than coconut sugar. It can substitute for Chinese brown sugar in most recipes. Palm sugar is often used in Thai dishes.
Palm sugar is naturally rich in a number of key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6.
Palm sugar is lauded for its low glycemic index of 35, which is claimed by Phillipine Department of Agriculture, whereas white sugar is in the 65 and honey still at 55 and higher. This means palm sugar does not raise blood sugar level as much as white sugar does and thus diabetics can more safely consume it. Palm sugar is called a diabetic friendly sweetener because of the GI.
Palm sugar is widely used in Southeast-Asian countries, including Thailand. In North American Asian stores, palm sugar is sold in bowl-shaped cake with plastic bags. When purchasing, keep in mind that the names palm sugar and coconut sugar are often used interchangably package labels. It'd be better go by the ingredients on the package rather than the title on the label. Aside from Asian stores, you may also be able to find these sugars at many health food stores or gourmet food stores.
Maltose, also called malt sugar, is a sticky disaccharide sugar produced from starch and wheat sprouts. It is only about 30% as sweet as ordinary white sugar, but it has a very high glycemic index of 105, making it unsuitable for diabetics.
Maltose is broken down to two glucose molecules in the small intestinal lining, which is absorbed faster than pure glucose. Some maltose can be absorbed directly, without being broken down into glucose. Maltose is much better for teeth care than white sugar.
Maltose is widely used in cooking. Maltose can be used instead of sugar as a nutrient for yeast in making bread, using any standard bread recipe. Maltose replaces sugar as a nutrient to feed the bread yeast which produces gas and helps the bread to rise. It works better with the flour than white sugar, but less sweet. It creates a brighter look and a softer mouthfeel.
In Southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, maltose is a common ingredient in confectionery. The most common way is to put a layer of maltose inside two pieces of biscuits (usually cracker).
Maltose is a key ingredient to make common Chinese pastries Shaqima or Sachima （沙琪玛） and nugats (牛轧糖)
Maltose is the secret ingredient that gives Hong Kong-style BBQ pork (char siu, char siew in Catonese, chashao in Mandarin) a unique sticky sweet taste and signature shine red texture. Honey is just the icing on the cake. It gives a certain viscosity to the marinade, and more importantly, it imparts a high gloss and shine to the meat, which is also an important part of the appeal of char siew. And unlike honey, when cooked, it has a less sticky feel to it. The sweetness of maltose is also different from that of honey. I personally feel that maltose is quite an integral part of the char siew marinade. However, if it is unavailable, I think honey does make for an acceptable substitution." However, I didn't want to specially find and purchase maltose for this purpose as I don't know what else I would use it in, so I substituted anyway and just accepted from the beginning that it wasn't going to be exactly the same.
Maltose is warming in therapeutic nature, with help of strengthening spleen and tonifying lung, relieving cough and stomach pain of cold.
- Two tbsp of maltose mixed with hot water may help relieving stomach pain
- Maltose mixed with red radish slices for one whole night and drink to relieve cough and sore throat
- Hot thick soymilk with one tbsp of maltose to relieve dry cough or body weakness
- For kid's pupu on bed during sleeping, Paeonia lactiflora 6g, Cinnamon 3 g and Licorice 6g, 2 tbsp maltose
- For ashma, one cup of white radis jiuce boils with 15g maltose.
Jiuniang (酒酿) is also called laozao (醪糟) and may be translated as Rice Sauce or even Rice Wine (due to its alcohol content) . It consists of a mixture of partially digested rice grains floating in a sweet saccharified liquid, with small amounts of alcohol (1.5-2%) and lactic acid (0.5%). It is made by fermenting glutinous rice with a yeast starter called jiuqu (酒曲). If the fermentation goes longer, jiuniang will eventually produce rice wine or rice vinegar.
Jiuniang is widely used for soup desserts and for flavoring in Sichuan cooking as a sweetener. It can be found at the refrigerated section in Asian stores.