Branding our regional ingredients

JANUARY 12 — The other day I paid a hefty premium for some bubble tea with Okinawa sugar to be delivered to me.

Okay, I will admit, I’ve spent on this tea more than once. I love the mellow not too sweet and slightly malty taste of Okinawa sugar.

However, my commitment to this tasty Japanese delicacy has left me wondering about our local equivalent — the humble gula melaka.

Okinawa sugar is unrefined cane sugar produced by boiling, thickening and then cooling pure sugar cane juice. 

It is produced from sugar cane grown in Japan’s Okinawa islands — the only region of Japan warm enough to grow sugar cane.

There is a great deal of history behind the product but I wonder how different is it from gula melaka?

Gula melaka is our local palm sugar — made by boiling the sap from palm flowers until it too is thickened.

Yet where the whole world is now aware of the unique properties of Okinawa sugar, our gula melaka doesn’t get the same billing. 

While Singaporeans are definitely familiar — and we do like a generous drizzle on our cendols and sago puddings — we don’t prize any particular region or know too much about its production.

Gula melaka is a complex product with an ancient pedigree. Extracting is a true artisanal craft and depending on the palm in question and the method used for boiling, there are many differences.

It is not just sugar.

But across the spectrum in Singapore and Malaysia, we don’t place importance on the origin of our ingredients. Typically, we focus more on the dishes than the ingredients.

For example, I can name types of rice such as Italy’s Arborio or India’s Basmati, but can I name a single Malaysian or Indonesian variety?

In reality, there are particular varieties of Malaysian rice grown in places like Kedah but these are not branded.  We do not appreciate these regional nuances and diversities sufficiently.

It is a recurring pattern; Asian foodies will often travel to the source of an ingredient such as Hokkaido for scallops or Modena for Balsamic vinegar but we don’t typically afford the attention to our regional offerings.

Europe has a system for the protection of the geographical names of certain foodstuffs.

This ensures a certain region and craftsmen associated get exclusive rights to a culinary heritage.

This sort of standard also means consumers know they are getting a certain standard of product.

We need to be aware of local products, and an effort must be made by producers to brand the very best so we can ensure the variety and quality of our region’s offerings continue to thrive.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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