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liuzhou

Sugar in China

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Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China, where I live, is sugar central for the country. Over two-thirds of China's output of sugar is grown right here, making it one of the largest sugar production areas on the planet. I have a second home in the countryside and it is surrounded by sugar cane fields.

Much of this is produced by small time farmers, although huge Chinese and international companies have also moved in.

 

Also, sugar is used extensively in Chinese cooking, not only as a sweetener, but more as a spice. A little added to a savoury dish can bring out otherwise hidden flavours. It also has medicinal attributes according to traditional Chinese medicine.

 

Supermarkets have what was to me, on first sight, a huge range of sugars, some almost unrecognisable. Here is a brief introduction to some of them. Most sugar is sold loose, although corner shops and mom 'n pop stores may have pre-packed bags. These are often labelled in English as "candy", the Chinese language not differentiating between "sugar" and "candy" - always a source of confusion. Both are (táng),

IMPORTANT NOTE: The Chinese names given here and in the images are the names most used locally. They are all Mandarin Chinese, but it is still possible that other names may be used elsewhere in China. Certainly, non-Mandarin speaking areas will be different.

By the far the simplest way to get your sugar ration is to buy the unprocessed sugar cane. This is not usually available in supermarkets but is a street vendor speciality. In the countryside, you can buy it at the roadside. There are also people in markets etc with portable juice extractors who will sell you a cup of pure sugar cane juice.

sugar cane.jpg

 

I remember being baffled then amused when, soon after I first arrived in China, someone asked me if I wanted some 甘蔗 (gān zhè). It sounded exactly like 'ganja' or cannabis. No such luck! 甘蔗 (gān zhè) is 'sugar cane'.
 

The most common sugar in the supermarkets seems to be 冰糖 (bīng táng) which literally means 'ice 'sugar' and is what we tend to call 'rock sugar' or 'crystal sugar'. This highly refined sugar comes in various lump sizes although the price remains the same no matter if the pieces are large or small. Around ¥7/500g. That pictured below features the smaller end of the range.

冰糖.jpg

 

Related to this is what is known as 冰片糖 (bīng piàn táng) which literally means "ice slice sugar". This is usually slightly less processed (although I have seen a white version, but not recently) and is usually a pale brown to yellow colour. This may be from unprocessed cane sugar extract, but is often white sugar coloured and flavoured with added molasses. It is also sometimes called 黄片糖  (huáng piàn táng) or "yellow slice sugar". ¥6.20/500g.

 

冰片糖.jpg

A less refined, much darker version is known as 红片糖 (hóng piàn táng), literally 'red slice sugar'. (Chinese seems to classify colours differently - what we know as 'black tea' is 'red tea' here. ¥7.20/500g.

红片糖.jpg

 

Of course, what we probably think of as regular sugar, granulated sugar is also available. Known as 白砂糖 (bái shā táng), literally "white sand sugar', it is the cheapest at  ¥3.88/500g.

白沙糖.jpg

A brown powdered sugar is also common, but again, in Chinese, it isn't brown. It's red and simply known as 红糖 (hóng táng). ¥7.70/500g

红糖.jpg

 

Enough sweetness and light for now. More to come tomorrow.


Edited by liuzhou Found price (log)
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How are each of these sugars used? Would your grandmother look cross-eyed at you if you used, say, red slice sugar instead of ice sugar in a dish? Does the sugar cane juice get fermented (and distilled) or is it always drunk fresh?

 

I'm fascinated by all things sweet, especially from a place where historically there weren't many ovens as I think of them.

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Who knew?  This is fascinating.  Is there more to tell?  Please.  And thank you.

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44 minutes ago, MelissaH said:

How are each of these sugars used? Would your grandmother look cross-eyed at you if you used, say, red slice sugar instead of ice sugar in a dish? Does the sugar cane juice get fermented (and distilled) or is it always drunk fresh?

 

I'm fascinated by all things sweet, especially from a place where historically there weren't many ovens as I think of them.

 

I should have confessed at the beginning that I know little about the actual uses - if I use more than 200g of sugar a year that is a miracle. But I do know that many of these sugars are used in savoury dishes. The choice of sugar in any one dish is largely determined by esoteric means taking into consideration colour, taste (fine so far), alleged "medical" properties, the season of the witch and the wind direction that morning.

Few sweet dishes are made at home, but instead, when eaten (rare), bought in.

In the last couple of days, while thinking about this, I have asked a couple of close Chinese friends who are good, food interested cooks how they use sugars and they looked at me in confusion. The particular sugar which inspired this thread (I'll deal with that one tomorrow), they had never even heard of despite it being widely available.

I've also looked through my fairly extensive collection of Chinese language cookbooks. Many recipes ask for sugar, but none that I have seen so far declare which type.

 

I have never come across fermented or distilled sugar cane juice, although it wouldn't surprise me. Again, I will ask.

Thank you for your questions. Apologies for lack of definitive answers at this stage, but I will do my best to fill the gaps. It's an education for me, too!

As to my grandmothers, one was Scottish and the other French. Their reaction to me using inappropriate sugar in China would be along the lines of "China!?! What on earth are you doing there?" 

P.S. You are correct. Very, very few people have ovens. In fact, I'm the only person I know who does and I do have friends!

 

26 minutes ago, Darienne said:

Who knew?  This is fascinating.  Is there more to tell?  Please.  And thank you.

 

Yes, lots more.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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This is fascinating.  Having started out in my professional life as a baker, I have always been interested in how sugars are used in baked goods.  But I also have followed discussions on how various cultures use different types of sugar - for preserving, for applications that "cure" fish and meats.  

I have a "collection" of sugars - not as extensive as my collection of salts, but there are several.

 

I'm looking forward to further revelations so when I visit the Asian market, I will know what I am buying - because their labeling in "English" does leave much to the imagination.

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This thread arose from a post I made on the Mystery Ingredients topic.

 

The ingredient in question was a rather special sugar, 元宝糖 (yuán bǎo táng). 元宝 were silver or gold ingots which were used as currency in imperial China. Today they are still a potent symbol of wealth and good luck and are frequently displayed at Chinese New Year ceremonies etc. Paper yuan bao are burned at ancestors' graves to ensure they are rich in the afterlife.

 

This sugar is raw, unrefined cane sugar pressed into yuan bao shapes.

 

元宝糖.jpg

 

These small dark ingots have a deep, complex flavour with mineral notes. They are given as gifts during festivals, especially 清明节 (qīng míng jié), the ancestor worship festival and Chinese New Year. They are, however, available . year round. At ¥7.30/500g this is the most expensive loose sugar in my nearest supermarket.

 

hmmm2.jpg

 

More later.

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Wonderful wonderful post, thank you for the unique insight.

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4 hours ago, Yiannos said:

Wonderful wonderful post, thank you for the unique insight.

 

Thank you. Glad you are enjoying it.

 

I forgot to mention another type of the "red slice sugar". This is a darker sugar called 老红糖 (lǎo hóng táng) which means "old red sugar". ¥5.50/500g.

 

老红糖.jpg

 

Purely, by coincidence, earlier today, a friend who didn't know anything about this site or my sugar investigations gave me a gift. Sugar! In fact, 老红糖 (lǎo hóng táng)! It is a product of 中渡 (zhōng dù), an ancient town in the east of Liuzhou prefecture. Seems they are selling the local sugar to the tourists.

 

zhongdu1.jpg

 

zhongdu2.jpg

 

What looks blue in the picture is crystallised sugar on the surface of the vacuum-packed slice.

 

I also omitted to mention that the rock sugar also comes in a less purified version:

 

天然冰糖.jpg

 

Known as 天然冰糖 (tiān rán bīng táng) or "natural ice sugar" comes in at ¥8.90/500g.

 

Talking of rock/ice sugar, here is an example of one of the larger pieces available. One lump or two?

 

rock.jpg


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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15 hours ago, andiesenji said:

This is fascinating.  Having started out in my professional life as a baker, I have always been interested in how sugars are used in baked goods.  But I also have followed discussions on how various cultures use different types of sugar - for preserving, for applications that "cure" fish and meats.  

I have a "collection" of sugars - not as extensive as my collection of salts, but there are several.

 

I'm looking forward to further revelations so when I visit the Asian market, I will know what I am buying - because their labeling in "English" does leave much to the imagination.

 

I regret that I am no baker, but my mother would throw together the occasional cake. I'd say barely competent rather than skilled.

Anyway, the two sugars I think of most related to baking are:

a) What I call caster sugar and most of you probably call "superfine" sugar (?). This is also available here, but a bit harder to track down. Only one supermarket that I know of stocks it. It is called 绵白糖 (mián bái táng ), literally "soft white sugar". Relatively expensive at ¥11.80/500g.

 

caster.jpg

 

b) Icing sugar, confectioner's sugar, powdered sugar, whatever you call it, is harder to find. It is available but only in specialist shops who do a bit of retail as a sideline from their wholesale supplies to bakeries, restaurants etc.

It comes under two names that I've noticed. One is 糖粉 (táng fěn), literally "sugar powder"; the other is 糖霜 (táng shuāng), literally "sugar frost". This is cheaper at around ¥14/500g.

 

icing.jpg

I know it's an appalling habit, but for the next two days I have to work, so that's your Chinese sugar for now. I'll be back! Sweet dreams!

 


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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I think we have a box of each of the two lump sugars in the above post in our pantry. My husband was intrigued by them at the Asian grocery and they weren't expensive, so he grabbed them. They're both still unopened because neither of us has much of a clue how to best use them!

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What's the large rock sugar used for? I know the smaller ones can be used to sweeten tea but I can't really think of a practical use for a palm sized shard of sugar.

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41 minutes ago, Shalmanese said:

What's the large rock sugar used for? I know the smaller ones can be used to sweeten tea but I can't really think of a practical use for a palm sized shard of sugar.

 

Indeed. It is broken down before use. Smashed with a hammer.

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Just now, liuzhou said:

 

Indeed. It is broken down before use. Smashed with a hammer.

 

Why not buy them pre-smashed? It's not like sugar goes stale on you.

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6 minutes ago, Shalmanese said:

 

Why not buy them pre-smashed? It's not like sugar goes stale on you.

 

Agreed. It always amuses me that the pre-packaged sugar carries a best before date.

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By the way.  I make my own "icing sugar" by putting granulated sugar in a blender (or my Thermomix) and blending it until it is a powder.

That way there are no "additives" which are common in commercial XXXXX sugar in the U.S.

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38 minutes ago, andiesenji said:

By the way.  I make my own "icing sugar" by putting granulated sugar in a blender (or my Thermomix) and blending it until it is a powder.

That way there are no "additives" which are common in commercial XXXXX sugar in the U.S.

 

Yes, I've done that, too. The icing sugar I posted contains corn starch as an anti-caking agent.

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39 minutes ago, dcarch said:

I have this in my pantry:

 

Yes. Also from here in Guangxi.


Edited by liuzhou (log)

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Palm sugar and the woven basket you buy it in. This is from Cambodia (not China, but they're close :))

Okay, the basket is a tourist thing, but the sugar is amazing. I wish I had more. 

 

IMG_2715.JPG

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We are due for a visit in town to our favorite Asian grocery store.  I shall look for a sugar section this time.  Love this kind of ingredient information.  :x Not that I can ever use it I fear.  :(

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16 hours ago, Shalmanese said:

 

Why not buy them pre-smashed? It's not like sugar goes stale on you.

I wonder if you pre-smashed it, you'd wind up with a hard lump that you would just have to smash again, unless you sealed it perfectly airtight.

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1 hour ago, MelissaH said:

I wonder if you pre-smashed it, you'd wind up with a hard lump that you would just have to smash again, unless you sealed it perfectly airtight.

 

That is certainly possible. I gets astonishingly humid here and keeping stuff dry is something of a problem.

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I have some antique sugar "snips" and graters - inherited from my great grandmother from the days when sugar was sold in "loaves" (actually cones).  It was snipped off in chunks and then pounded in a mortar if a lot was needed.  If only a little was needed, they just grated what they needed off the loaf or cone.  sugar was expensive and kept locked up and used sparingly.

 

I use a metal rasp - coarse on one side, medium on the other, to grate jaggery.

 

In the south, when sugar was first sold granulated, and the climate was very humid.  It was common to put rice in with the sugar and then put it through a "hair sieve" for use.  The rice kept the sugar from clumping.

 

My grandpa's cook was a Gullah woman from the South Carolina lowcountry and that's how she learned to store sugar and salt when she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother.  She was in her late '50s when I was a child in the mid-'40s.  

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