D is for Rock Sugar: Đường Phèn (From My Vietnamese Pantry)

(This blog post originally appeared 2012/08/31, but I’ve updated it here to include with my A to Z tour of Vietnamese foods and ingredients.)
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Ngọt như đường cát, mát như đường phèn.
Sweet as sand sugar (refined sugar), cool as rock sugar.
– old folk saying

Known in English as rock sugar or even rock candy,  đường phèn can be white or golden. The second time I returned to Canada from Việt Nam, my mother-in-law packed a big bag of đường phèn for me to take along. She told me to use it to make chè (sweet soupy desserts) with the fresh lotus seeds that she’d already stuffed into my baggage. It’s also one of the secret ingredients for making a phở broth beyond the ordinary. My husband’s gradmother, whom we call Mệ, likes to nibble on chunks of rock sugar while sipping strong green tea. This sugar is a specialty of Quảng Ngãi province, a major sugar cane-growing region. Rock sugar is traditionally a popular gift for close friends or family, especially if they are setting out on a trip.

I insisted I didn’t need it, because I didn’t know what else to use it for, and I was going to return to Việt Nam in a few months. She said she’d bought it just for me, and so, despite all the extra weight it added to my bags, I accepted her gift. It took me a while to learn how to appreciate rock sugar. The first time I pounded some with a pestle to break it into powder, I saw sugarcane fibers threaded amongst the crystals and thought they were impurities from the bags they’d been packaged in for bringing to the market. My mother-in-law snickered when she saw me trying to pick them out. “No, no! Those are cane fibers. They won’t hurt you.”

She usually buys regular, white refined sugar, or đường cát trắng. The crystals are a little larger than we are used to in the West, so it doesn’t dissolve quite as readily, but the taste is almost the same. Because it’s refined, it has no (or few) impurities and it’s what you’ll get with your iced black coffee and what most Vietnamese cooks use at home. My mother-in-law says the rock sugar is special and she rarely buys it, but she remembers that when she was small, refined sugar was expensive and cherished, while rock sugar was looked down upon.

Rock sugar still has the delicate, smoky flavour from the cane, which is why it’s so good in phở. It’s not a flavour you can pin down; just a mysterious “something”. It works for Huế Beef Noodle soup and for other soups too.

I use đường phèn whenever I need caramelized sugar for a dish. It melts and caramelizes quickly, whereas refined sugar seems to take forever. I’ve even had it refuse to caramelize at all. Đường phèn comes through for me every time. And then there’s that wonderful flavour. I take the sugar off the heat while it’s still golden and it continues to darken a little more, but not so much as to lose that flavour.I use the caramelized sugar most often for making “kho” dishes; foods that are finished in a fish sauce and caramel mixture. Once in a while, I use it for flans (crème caramel).

If using Vietnamese rock sugar to make chè, the sugar can be dissolved and filtered first, to remove the cane fibers. For “kho” dishes and for soups, this isn’t necessary. In the West, rock sugar can be purchased from most Asian markets. Don’t confuse it with the brown or golden discs of palm sugar. (These are made from Toddy Palms, and have a different flavour.) The sugar I get from the market in Huế comes in jagged chunks roughly the size of golfballs, but I’ve seen it sold as smooth grape-sized pieces in Montreal’s Chinatown. This sugar appears to be harder, drier and almost transparent compared to the one I’ve been using. I’ve never tried it though, as I’ve never run out of what I bring back from Việt Nam.

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About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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23 Responses to D is for Rock Sugar: Đường Phèn (From My Vietnamese Pantry)

  1. Berit says:

    Always impressed by your insider’s knowledge of Viet Nam and its cuisine!

  2. J.A. Pak says:

    Love the numerous kinds of sugar available for cooking. In the UK, the supermarkets have over half a dozen kinds of sugar and all the recipes are very specific about what to use. Here in the US, it’s just sugar, brown and white. 😦 There is something so lovely about rock sugar. And thank god for ethnic groceries (I went to three just this morning, Indian, Korean and Japanese).

    • chris says:

      Same here in Canada, but I’ve noticed lately that more varieties are appearing on the market. Raw sugar has been available for some time, along with Demerara sugar and Turbinado, confectioners of course, and fruit sugar in some specialty places. Corn sugar is also always available at brew-your-own beer supply shops. It’s nothing compared to Viet Nam though. In the markets there, I’ve seen up to 15 or so different sugars sold by one person. There’s even a “black sugar”, which looks something like a crystallized molasses.

  3. Jennifer says:

    oh wow, how cool! we are so used to the standard supermarket stuff, one doesn’t consider there might be other flavors/textures out there. but it reminds me of the old fashioned rock candy we ate as kids and seeing the pics just want to pop some in my mouth 😀

  4. karinguyen says:

    You put my food knowledge to shame, Chris! My mother-in-law would love you. And how cool to give rock sugar as a gift. I like that.

    • chris says:

      Aw, thanks Kari! Yeah, it is a nice gift, but I had a hard time explaining to my mom-in-law why my father wouldn’t need any. Finally had to take the package anyway, and add it to my own stockpile. My baggage was *really* heavy on that trip.

  5. Cam says:

    Rock sugar in phở, huh? It took me years to wheedle the recipe from my mom (she doesn’t use measurements and apparently ingredient lists are optional too lol) & she never mentioned rock sugar. I can see how that caramel-y flavor would work in phở tho. Will have to try it with my next batch cuz soup season’s just around the corner :).

    • chris says:

      I think a lot of people just use regular sugar in their broth, and then there are those who use none at all. I do find that it smoothes and balances the flavour of the other ingredients though. If you try using rock sugar, please do drop by and let me know what you think!

  6. D. D. Syrdal says:

    Rock candy was such a special treat when I was a kid. We saw it so seldom for awhile I thought I’d imagined it! It would never have occurred to me to use it for cooking, though. Then again, I’ve never been a terribly adventurous cook. Fascinating read 🙂

    • chris says:

      Was the rock candy you ate as a child just pure sugar, or did it come in flavours? I remember hearing about it years ago, but we never had it when I was little. Then when I first heard of rock sugar being called rock candy, I was surprised to learn that it was just sugar.

  7. Wonderful, Chris. Thank goodness for those who help us keep tradition alive.

  8. I have yet to understand why Asian recipes call for sweeteners, but try not to ask as a working chef in my real career. Rock candy was a cheap treat for my father in the 20’s, and I can see it in a poem about how you take it to sweeten the bad times if you run across any, as a reminder of the sweet times and ones you left behind…

  9. chris says:

    I used to wonder the same thing, but have since learned that there are certain dishes which improve with the addition of some sugar. We’re not talking about adding a lot, certainly not enough to make the dish sweet, but just a little can round out rough edges and cut acidity. It can even help balance a dish that is too salty. In the case of the ‘kho’ dish I mentioned above, using rock sugar and fish sauce produces a thick, somewhat sweet sauce which is also a glaze. One of my fave Vietnamese cooking techniques. As for rock candy, I wonder if anyone eats it anymore. It seems to be something people remember, rather than something people eat now. My father used to buy us barley sugar candy, also rock hard but clear.

  10. This looks so beautiful — thanks for the introduction! I’ll keep an eye out for it.
    tk

  11. Hien says:

    So nice 🙂

  12. t upchurch says:

    Ooh, that looks lovely — never tried rock sugar but will keep an eye out. We used to eat Barley sugar, my mother loved it and would buy us sticks. My grandfather would burn sugar and treacle into treacle toffee but I didn’t get to learn how he did it. That might be something I look up.
    Most of the sugar we have here (UK) seems to be cane sugar; we have demerara and various granulation methods etc, but it’s pretty refined. At home, we enjoy honey and use syrups in cooking — also imported maple syrup, definitely a favourite 🙂

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