Thalias Hospitality

Kampong Speu: Palm Sugar and a Cambodian Tradition

Palm sugar has a strong bond with Cambodia and is the livelihood of farmers in Kampong Speu while showing its economic potential in the international market. Despite this significance, the issues of labor shortages and land development could lead to its disappearance. Kampong Speu is famous for many things, such as ecotourism destinations, the tallest mountain in Cambodia, and the palm trees that decorate the rice fields along the roads of the province. Bordering Kampot, Kandal, Takeo, Koh Kong, and Kampong Chhnang, one third of Cambodia’s 3 million palmyra trees grow in Kampong Speu. Palm trees are very important in the daily life of the Cambodian people, especially in rural areas. Palm leaves can be used for roofing, hats, mats, baskets, and the trunks can be processed into boats, furniture, souvenirs, and houses. The palmyra fruit can be used in desserts and dishes like palm cakes and the flowers can be used to make sweet palm juice and even produce alcoholic drinks. You can also use palm juice to produce palm sugar, and in 2019, these palms were registered with the EU Geographical Indications system that “protects the names of products that originate from specific regions and have specific qualities or enjoy a reputation linked to the production territory.” The GI recognition protects the consumer and distinguishes quality products while also helping producers to better market their products. Food Culture and Palm Sugar With a delicious sweet taste different from cane sugar and color and texture that varies depending on its intended use, palm sugar is popular in the kitchen of the Khmer people, especially in rural areas. The popular dessert that I want to introduce here is the Glutinous Rice Balls Dessert (នំផ្លែអាយ), which is a famous dessert amongst Cambodian people. The Glutinous Rice Balls Dessert (នំផ្លែអាយ) is usually made with three ingredients: glutinous rice flour, palm sugar, and coconut. The method of making these cakes is very simple despite their delicious, sweet taste. First, we have to mix the glutinous rice flour with warm water, then flatten it, add the palm sugar, and pack it tightly. Next, we put the sugar-packed balls in boiling water until they float, put them in cold water and strain them on a plate, sprinkle them with coconut meat, and they are ready-to-eat. Taking Kampong Speu’s palm sugar to another level through organization As a reporter trainee at Focus: Ready for Tomorrow I was excited to do a story about Kampong Speu’s palm sugar for Cambodian Eats! in which I would go to witness the farmer’s lives and see the process of palm sugar production with my own eyes. Unfortunately, the third community outbreak of Covid-19 was widespread, and we were discouraged from visiting. However, to learn more about the significance of palm sugar in Cambodia, I contacted Mr. Sam Saroeun, the President of the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association, by phone. Established in 2009, the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association’s main aim is to protect and promote Kampong Speu palm sugar and acts as a non-profit, inter-professional association, overseeing the product quality assurance and connecting producers and trading members. The production members of this association are 150 families in the Oudong and Samrong Tong districts of Kampong Speu province and Ang Snoul district in Kandal province. Around 10 companies are the trading members of the communities that supply sugar for both domestic and export markets. Palm sugar and traditional livelihoods Mr. Sam Saroeun explained that what makes Kampong Speu palm sugar unique is the geography of the province, which is a lowland area with moderate rainfall and favorable soil for palm trees. According to Saroeun, the greater the yearly drought, the more delicious the palm sugar. With the harvest season in Kampong Speu usually lasting 6 months, from December to May, Saroeun said that palm sugar production depends on nature, making it difficult to estimate and guarantee specific yields. In 2021, the association could only supply approximately 150 tons of palm sugar due to the weather and labor shortages from the pandemic, but the demand was much greater, according to Saroeun. Usually, a family business that starts with getting the juice from the tree and finishes with the stirring process that produces palm sugar, association members are required to have at least 15 palm trees to produce palm sugar. Some farmers own their palm trees, while others rent palm trees to produce sugar. Living in Kampong Speu’s Oudong district, like other palm sugar producers, Mr. Sang Pang also farms the land and has only three or four palm trees. However, he rents more than 30 palm trees to make sugar and in exchange gives 5 kg of palm sugar per year to the palm tree’s owner. “(It is) more profitable, that’s why I work hard. Just try hard, we get a lot [of sugar] and [are] not so tired,” Pang said. While palm sugar in this area has long provided a source of income to locals, Saroeun’s association has improved the lives of farmers by providing the structure that ensures quality and fair pricing. “Before they joined the association, they had faced a lot of problems in palm sugar making because sugar was expensive only during the beginning of the season,” Saroeun said. “The Kampong Sugar Sugar Association does not do that….The price is negotiated from the start until the end of one season. Next year, we will negotiate (price) again.” Currently, farmers can sell Kampong Speu palm sugar for 6,800 KHR (1.67USD) per kilogram, a much better price than non-association farmers can get. Bitter Challenges Although palm sugar prices have risen and stabilized, labor and producer shortages – especially among the next generation of Cambodians – pose a threat to this traditional industry. “Right now, only 20 percent of those who produce the sugar are in their 30s, but 70 to 80 percent are in their 40s and 50s,” Saroeun said. “Young people, if they have the strength…they go to work as labor workers instead.” Saroeun said that … Read more