A Sweet Revelation

The very delicious Kanom Tan made from the palm’s natural yeast and palm sugar

Khun Amnart Phu-Ngern answered my call while balancing himself atop a toddy palm tree. We couldn’t see the sign into his farm, and he patiently explained. “You are on the right track now, just keep following the trail,” he said. “And you will see our palms lining up to your right.”

Mornings are the best time for Phi Amnart to be on top of his palm trees to collect the sap oozing out from the cut of the seed pods. Instead of the traditional bamboo tubes, Phi Amnart now uses plastic bottles to hang just below the cut of the pods to collect the sap. But still, he uses a tiny bit of Payom tree bark to keep the sap from spoiling. Adding too much Payom bark will result in a bitter taste of the palm sugar, he explains. “Only a small piece is good for the whole bottle.”

The much-coveted all-natural homemade palm sugar

Phi Amnart is the only son of Uncle Thanom Phu-Ngern – the founder of this toddy palm plantation in Petchaburi. Once ubiquitous and populous, toddy palms gradually lost grounds in the rice paddies of Petchaburi. Obvious reasons include urbanization and the fact that palm trees takes decades, at least, to yield any fruits, so less and less people care to grow them. Also, tall and slender, the single trunk of palm tree is not the easiest thing to climb up and down. This daily sap-and-seed-collecting business can be deadly. So luring for a career, that is.

The sap, once collected, will be slowly simmered in a big ‘lotus leave’ wok. Nothing is added into the sap, but the slow cooking thickens the watery sap until the sugary content forms the natural and very aromatic palm sugar, making Petchaburi one of a few provinces in Thailand to have the best quality palm sugars, hands down. Palm sugar is prominent in Thai cooking, both the desserts and savouries. You get the subtle sweetness out of the sugar and its distinct aroma is great for making all Thai sweets, especially the ones containing fresh coconut milk. Palm sugar and coconut milk just make a magical combination of tastes.

Beautiful lines of palm trees at Lung Thanom’s

Palm is a versatile tree and Thai people have been using all its parts since the beginning of history. For example, the young seeds are to be eaten fresh, the pod cut for sap, the trunks for construction, and the leaves for thatched roofing. The mature seeds, with soft fibre shell, are also collected to make the natural yeast which is the base ingredient for the traditional kanom tan (palm dessert) now so rare (the ones made from this natural palm yeast) that I almost forgot how it actually tastes growing up.

The palm yeast is made from the deep yellow ‘husk’ of the palm, shredded to separate from the fiber, and left in the sun for a couple of hours to activate its property. Once ready, the yeast is added to rice flour, palm sugar and coconut milk. Mixed well and the batter is then poured into mini palm-leave baskets and steamed until fluffy and done. The soft and springy texture of kanom tan is all gorgeously porous and leavened thanks to the yeast which also gives a unique aroma of the mature palm meat. Kanom tan made at Uncle Thanom are the best ones I had ever eaten. You can easily pair these gorgeous pieces with any drinks. But I would prefer it with a warm mild-flavoured green tea.

The sweet and sought-after palm embryo

Being in the farm means you get the best the farm has to offer. Days of buying palm seeds from the roadside stalls is over for me. I also got to try these rare palm embryo. Crunchy, nutty and only a bit sweet, these seeds are sought-after for those believing that the seeds can help restoring the kidney functions. They are sold in high prices, and still not every farm is willing to sell them for you. It is like having a secret business deal with a farm who promises to sell these items to you only, and no one else.

“I started this palm plantation back in 1991, hoping to set a self-sustainable living path for my kids,” says Uncle Thanom, now 75. “When I was young, I was looking around to see what to do with my life. Farming and keeping rice paddies are all in my blood. But I was looking for something even more special. Palm has been a a part of Petchaburi for a long time, but people tended to forget about it because the trees take decades to yield anything and climbing up and down those trunks every single day can be very dangerous. But I saw this as an excellent opportunity. When you do something most people are afraid to do, you get a niche power of supplying. Now there are not so many palm plantations around anymore and I am proud that I could somehow preserve the old palm tradition of my hometown and provide my kids a good self-sustainable life backup. They do not need to ‘find a job,’ the only thing they need to do is to cure the farm right and people will come and buy stuff from them.”

The studying station at Lung Thanom’s palm plantation

If you happen to be in Petchaburi, stop by Lung Thanom Palm Plantation. It is best to make an appointment and do a group tour. Families with kids or schools are welcome for this is a great place to learn about a Thai culture.

Lung Thanon Palm Plantation is in Baan Laad district, about 13 kilometres south of Ta Yang in Petchaburi. Group visitors and students are welcome. Appointment is needed. Call T: 087-800-7716. Or if you want to order these kanom tan, call Phi Chin at T: 086-625-2539. She makes these to order only, so allow a couple of days in advance. Minimum order is 100 pieces at Bt2.50 apiece. 😀

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