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Sugar palms

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Peppering rice paddies with their distinctive mops of spiky leaves, sugar-palm trees are of great importance to the rural Cambodian economy, since every part of the tree can be put to good use. Arguably the most significant product is the juice, extracted by climbing a rickety ladder lashed to the trunk, cutting the stalk bearing the flowers and fixing in place a container to collect the juice. This tends to be a dry-season occupation, as high monsoon winds and wet trunks make the climb hazardous at other times of year. The cloudy liquid is cleared by first smoking the collection tube with burning palm fronds and then adding bark from the popael tree (of the honeysuckle family). Both the sweet, fresh juice and fermented, alcoholic palm beer, are sold by hawkers from containers suspended either from a shoulder pole or from bicycle or moto handlebars. These days a sanitized version, nicely packaged, can be found in tourist centres and supermarkets. Palm sugar, much used by sweet-toothed Cambodians for cooking, is made by thickening the juice in a cauldron and then pouring it into cylindrical tubes to set, after which it resembles grainy honey-coloured fudge. Nearly as important as the juice are the leaves, which are collected two or three times a year for use in thatch, wall panels, woven matting, baskets, fans and even packaging. Until quite recently, specially treated leaves were used to record religious teachings by inscribing them with a metal nib.

Palm fruits, slightly larger than a cricket ball, have a tough, fibrous black coating containing juicy, delicately flavoured kernels, which are translucent white and have the consistency of jelly; they’re eaten either fresh or with syrup as a dessert. The root of the tree is used in traditional medicine as a cure for stomach ache and other ailments. Perhaps because the trees furnish so many other products, they are seldom cut for their wood, which is extremely durable. However, palm-wood souvenirs can be found in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, easily identifiable by their distinctive light-and-dark striped grain. Palm-wood furniture has become à la mode in one or two of the country’s trendy boutique hotels.

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