For health-conscious or cross-cultural cooks, ordinary refined sugar represents just the tip of a very sweet iceberg. Online vendors, upscale markets and crowded, funky ethnic grocers offer a range of alternative sweeteners, from small-batch artisanal honeys to high-tech refined syrups. Coconut palm sugar stands out as an unusually alluring member of that tribe, a complex and richly flavored sweetener that's widely used in Asian cookery. If you run out, or if it's not readily available in your area, you can fall back on a variety of substitutes.
Non-Coconut Palm Sugar
The closest equivalent to coconut palm sugar is "plain" palm sugar. Like coconut palm sugar, it's tapped from palm trees. In this case, the trunks of the Asian sugar palm provide the sap in much the same way maple syrup is harvested in New England, though sugar palms can produce sap for up to six months of the year. Both types of palm sugar have a deep flavor with subtle fruity notes and can be used interchangeably in most recipes. These palm sugars -- often sold as jaggery or gur, the Indian names for the product -- are typically sold in hard discs or cakes that must be shaved or grated for use.
Date sugar is not really a sugar at all, though it is used as a sweetener. Instead of refining the abundant natural sugars from dates, the fruit are simply dried whole. With most of their moisture extracted, dates range from 60 to 80 percent sugar by weight and are simply ground to create a sugar-like texture. Date sugar doesn't entirely dissolve in your foods, as palm sugar will, so it's best used in curries or sweets where the flecks of date will blend unobtrusively into the finished dish.
Piloncillo, or Panela
If Asian markets are rare in your vicinity but their Hispanic counterparts are not, check their aisles for a sugar called piloncillo or panela. These are cane sugar, rather than palm sugar, and are sold in the traditional conical "sugarloaf" shape. Its flavor is rich and dark, with a high molasses content that lends it great depth and power. It will change the flavor of your dishes, but in a way that is equally pleasant if not entirely authentic. In a pinch, you could achieve a similar effect with ordinary brown sugar and a few drops of added molasses.
A Few Random Thoughts
It's important to remember that even the flavor of coconut palm sugar itself varies widely from brand to brand, so don't be upset if your finished dish doesn't taste quite "right." Think of it instead as an opportunity to explore the range of flavors that can work within a given dish. It's also a chance to exercise your own creativity. For example, a hint of tart tamarind in your dish might serve to replicate the palm sugar's fugitive fruitiness. On the other hand, you might find that a completely off-the-wall substitute, such as maple sugar, creates unexpected serendipity with the original dish's ingredients.