Thnot Palm Sugar

Aromatic and flavorful Thnot sugar, a Cambodian ingredient
Thnot growing wild among rice fields

Thnot is the Cambodian word for Borassus Flabellifer, also known as Toddy Palm.

Thnot sugar is made from the nectar of Thnot flowers. It has a delicate aroma and distinctive sweet flavor with caramel undertones. Thnot grows wild in Cambodia, dotting rice fields and towering proudly next to Angkor Wat, the world-renowned Khmer ancient temple. 

Thnot trees adding to the beauty of Angkor Wat

More than just sugar, Thnot is a symbol of perseverance and pride in Cambodian culture. The saying goes, តក់តក់ពេញបំពង់ Learn to be patient; drops of Thnot nectar will fill your bamboo canteen.

For many Cambodian farmers Thnot is essential for survival, providing construction material and extra income. The leaves can be constructed into huts, stitched into hats, woven into mats, baskets, hand bags, and so much more. Thnot leaves have also been used to record Buddhist teaching for centuries.

The 60-foot Thnot trunk is carved into beautiful cooking utensils as well as many other household essentials.  

Kitchen utensils made from Thnot wood

Even the spiny branches of Thnot are used for fencing to protect farm animals. Basically, no part of the plant goes unused.  

Different parts of Thnot fruit can be eaten fresh or used to make traditional Cambodian desserts. When young, the seeds have a delicate sweetness with gelatin-like texture and is perfect to enjoy on a hot day. As the fruit matures, the seeds harden and cannot be eaten. However, the sweet and fragrant orange pulp can be extracted to make traditional Cambodian cupcakes called Nom Ahkow.  

One recipe that is close to our hearts and utilizes Thnot sugar is the Braised Pork Belly (Kaw Sach Chrouk). The pork belly is full of unforgettable, authentic Cambodian flavors. The blend of star anise, garlic, and Kampot pepper paired with caramelized Thnot sugar create blend of sweet and savory.

Braised Pork Belly (Kaw Sach Chrouk): slowly cooked with hard boiled eggs, roasted tofu and tender bamboo shoots.

While Thnot is not unique to Cambodia, the Thnot tree holds special meaning to Cambodians, who cherish the plant and treat it with great care. This special treatment also applies to the sugar making process, producing the rich and unique product that all Cambodians crave.  

Thnot sugar is made by first harvesting nectar from Thnot flowers during the hottest months of the year. Unlike other cultures that use wood chips to prevent the nectar from turning sour in the heat of the day, Cambodian farmers collect the nectar in the cooler hours of the night. This method also minimizes the number of insects caught in the harvested nectar. Cambodian farmers use bamboo canteens instead of clay pots to hold the nectar, not only because bamboo is lighter and more durable, but also because it adds natural flavor to the sugar.  

Every evening during the harvesting season, a farmer would begin his collecting process by climbing each Thnot tree with empty bamboo canteens on his hip.  Before securing the canteen to the flower overnight, the farmer cuts the tip of the flower to allow nectar to drip into the canteen.
Cambodian Sugar Man: the image of farmers climbing Thnot
has been a symbol of pride in Khmer culture.
We do not cut corners with our food.

Early the next morning, the farmer collects the canteens full of sweet aromatic nectar. At the end of the run his last canteen of nectar may have begun to sour, which now has become a refreshing toddy to drink (hence the name Toddy Palm).  As a young girl many years ago, I was lucky enough to have an aunt who let me taste that foamy sour nectar. She quickly grabbed it back and warned that I would become addicted if I drank too much. I can still remember my trembling heartbeat as I received the bamboo cup full of sour Thnot nectar, its smooth, sweet, and slightly sour taste, along with its distinctive aroma as if it were yesterday.  

The next enduring step in making Cambodain Thnot sugar, is rendering the nectar to a consistency that can be dried. First, the nectar is brought to a boil then simmered in a large wok like kettle. When the nectar begins to thicken, it’s stirred constantly over low heat to achieve a rich color and flavor without it burning. How much fire to use, how to stir the nectar, and how long to stir is a skill that is passed down through generations. When the sugar is ready the whole village is pleasantly filled with the smell of sweetness and flowers.

What you will taste in Thnot sugar is pure Thnot nectar, that has been carefully collected in bamboo canteens, and patiently churned over low heat for the high-quality end product that Cambodians crave and take great pride in.      

The Cambodian dessert that best brings out the flavors of Thnot sugar is Nom Loat.

For me, every bite of Thnot sugar brings me back to Cambodia, to the dry and scorching rice fields dotted with Thnot trees, to the simple one instrument ancient Khmer music that keeps us together, and to the hard working farmers and their families for continuing to produce and share this wonderful sugar to the world. Thank you!

Recipes using Thnot sugar

Published by Channy Laux

Channy Laux is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. She was thirteen-years-old when the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. From 1975 to 1979, Channy endured starvation, horrendous working conditions, sickness and repeated separations from her family. In June of 1979, Channy arrived in Lincoln Nebraska as a refugee. After four years of no school and not knowing a word of English, she attended Lincoln High School; earned a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics from Santa Clara University and undergraduate degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Channy worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer in the Aerospace and Biotech industries for 30 years. In 2017 Channy decided to focus on completing a promise that she made to herself as she and her family struggled to survive the Cambodian genocide. “If I ever make it out alive, I will make sure the world knows what happened to us.” Channy published her memoir “Short Hair Detention”, which receives multiple awards, including Nebraska’s 2018 Book Award. Channy is also founder of Angkor Cambodian Food. Her goal is to bring Cambodian cuisine into American kitchens, by providing authentic and hard to find ingredients along with easy to follow recipes. One of her creations Kroeurng (Lemongrass cooking paste) receives sofiTM Award from Specialty Foods and Innovation Foodservice Award from IFMA. Channy now balances her time between her business and educating communities on the Cambodian Genocide. She works with schools and other organizations to promote awareness of Cambodian Genocide. She is a member of Speakers Bureau for JFCS Holocaust Center.

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