There is not a fruit stand, grocery store, public market or supermarket in Latin America that does not offer some form of the brown sugar we call Panela. It comes in various shapes from square to round, and shades of brown from Auburn to Tawny, but they are all the same product; the different shapes usually carry an specific name but it varies from one country to another. The name Panela usually refers to a rectangular prism, commonly called a Brick or Block.

The Panela is produced by pressing the juice out of sugar cane at small sugar mills called Trapiches, the machinery at these mills is very simple and sometimes is moved by water from a nearby source. The juice from the cane is filtered and boiled in a row of copper or iron pots where it is stirred frequently and decanted from the first pot to the last, becoming thicker in texture and lighter in color in the process. Copper pots produce a lighter colored and better crystallized product than iron pots, which produce darker Panela, however copper pots are more expensive and some trapiche do not use them. The process for making Panela has not changed much in centuries here you can see a very good video on the process, MAKING PANELA, this is from a Trapiche in Colombia but it is similar all over Latin America.

I grew up in a sugar cane growing town in Venezuela, named El Tocuyo; as a kid I roamed around the cane fields and occasionally cut some ripe sugar cane to peel and suck the juice out of it. To this day my favorite drink is freshly pressed sugar cane juice, called Guarapo, with a fresh lime squeezed into it, every time I see someone selling it I always buy, I can't resist it I am addicted to the stuff. During my childhood my family occasionally visited some of the local trapiches and my mother always brought spices and grated white cheese to have a Melcocha made, which is like a fudge made with the syrup from the last pot, the spices and cheese are added to form a paste which is kneaded until it becomes very elastic and almost solid then is shaped like a cylinder and is wrapped in dry plantain leaves.

I love cooking with panela, it produces a pretty caramel color in foods and the resulting flavor is never sickly sweet. Panela when added to any mixture turns it syrupy very quickly unlike sugar. Panela combines very well with white meats like pork or poultry and is excellent for making glazes. Panela and Rum are a match made in heaven since both come from sugar cane.

The technical definition of Panela is: unrefined whole cane sugar, typical of Latin America, which is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. In India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a similar product is made which is called jaggery. The main producer of panela is Colombia (about 1.4 million tons/year), where panela production is one of the most important economic activities, with the highest index of panela consumption per capita worldwide. Panela is also produced in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panamá, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia. In Colombia, the panela industry is an important source of employment with about 350,000 people working in nearly 20,000 trapiches (panela farms).

Below you will find some simple and delicious recipes with Panela I hope you will give them a try.

ENGLISH NAME: Brown Sugar, actually brown sugar shaped as a small brick

LOCAL NAMES: Panela, rapadura (Brazil), piloncillo (Mexico), Chancaca (Peru), Papelon (Venezuela), Raspadura (Panama)
Piloncillo (Mexico)

Papelon (Venezuela)

Raspadura (cuba)

PRODUCTS: Bricks, cones, half spheres, powder, syrup, nougat, fudge, candy, brittle.

NUTRIENTS: Panela is a form of sugar and as such is highly caloric, however in its defense one must say that unlike white sugar, which only has empty calories, Panela has some additional nutrients such as fiber and vitamins. Panela contains simple sugars (sucrose) but it also contains complex sugars (fructose) that take longer to be processed and delay hunger. So if you have to sweeten a dish, Panela is a healthier choice. I always combine Panela use with some protein to reduce the overall  glycemic index of the meal.

PROCESSING: In order to use Panela you will either break it, grate it, crush it (with a rock, my favorite) or scrape it, you can also melt it with a little water.

STORING: Panela keeps well in a cool dry place, it will last for weeks but make sure ants do not reach it, they love the stuff.

WIENERS IN SWEET RUM SAUCE: Take 8 hot dog sausages, preferably pork & beef kind, cut them in quarters, melt half a stick of butter in a pan over low heat, increase heat to medium, add sausages and brown, add about a quarter of a panela, a volume similar to half stick of butter, crushed or grated; stir to disolve the panela, cover and simmer for about 5 minutes; add a shot of dark rum and set on fire by inclining the pan towards the flame, it will die out quickly, evaporating the alcohol but leaving the rum taste. Serve warm with tooth picks, you will love this stuff, kids will devour them.

TERIYAKI RUM SAUCE: Take 1/4 cup of soy sauce, 1 cup of water, 1 teaspoon each of grated ginger and garlic, use half if they are in dry powder form, 6 tablespoons of crushed or grated panela, mix in a small pot and bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer 5 minutes; mix 2 tablespoons of corn starch (maizena) and 1/4 cup of rum preferably dark, stir well to disolve starch; add rum mixture to soy mixture; increase heat and stir until it becomes sirupy and not too thick; remove from heat, add drops of hot sauce and let cool completely before storing in a jar or bottle. Use over grilled meats but not from the start, brush meats with sauce when they are almost ready and let sauce form a glaze.

DULCE DE LECHE: You probably heard the term, it is poping up around the world in desserts, candies and ice creams. It is a very simple home made dessert which is being used as an ingredient all over the world as a spread, stuffing or flavoring. Pour 2 liters (2 quarts) of whole milk in a pot, add 8 panelas and disolve by stirring and heating, bring mixture to boil and then squeeze the juice of 1 big lime or 2 small ones, the milk will curdle, add 2 sticks of cinamon broken in half, lower heat to simmer uncovered until syrup clears and and curdled milk chunks harden, about 2 to 3 hours; remove from heat and you may add a shot of dark rum for extra flavor. You may serve it by itself or over a piece of biscuit, cake  or ice cream, vanilla, coffee (my favorite) or rum raisin are the most suitable flavors. Some people add old hard bread cubes at the beginning and let them simmer. Another addition maybe dry prunes, raisins or whole small cherry tomatoes. I have an aunt who makes a glorious Dulce de Leche and when I was a kid I would steal some from her at the risk of getting a beating from my mother, the stuff is so good that it was worth a good beating.

SHRIMP IN CHIPOTLE AND PANELA SAUCE: Around Latin America we love the hot and sweet flavor,  this dish is a prime example of such a flavor. Chipotles are smoked jalapenos chilies in adobo sauce you buy them in cans. Take 1/2 panela broken in small pieces and melt them with 2 tablespoons of water, add 1/2 cup of chipotles and 1 cube or tablespoon of dry chicken soup, sauce should be sirupy if necessary add a little water; liquefy sauce in a blender and reserve; in frying pan over low fire melt 1/2 stick of butter, increase heat to medium, add 1 large onion cut in rings and cook until slightly browned, add 1/2 Kg (1 Lb) of clean shrimps which have been tossed in the juice of 1 lime but do not add the juice, stir and add chipotle panela sauce and heat at medium for 10 minutes. To serve spray with some chopped cilantro and accompany with white rice.

SWEET SPICY CHICKEN RICE: This dish originated in island of Trinidad, probably from the indian community, from there it passed into south easter Venezuela where it became very popular. In Trinidad it is reffered to as Pelau and in Venezuela as Pelao but are very similar. You need a whole big chicken  (0.75 Kg or 1.5 Lbs) cut in bite size pieces or if you prefer use 6 chicken breast cut up in pieces. Wash your chicken and spray the pieces with juice of 1 lime and toss well, discard lime juice;  in a large saucepan over medium heat add 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 panela, stir until panela melts completely, add chicken pieces and brown (about 7 minutes), remove chicken and reserve; add 1 large red bell pepper coarsely chopped, 10 sweet chilies deseeded and coarsely chopped, 2 large onions coarsely chopped, 4 green onions chopped, 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped, 3 skinned ripe tomatoes in chunks, cook stirring until soft, about 10 minutes, return chicken pieces, add 4 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of salt, 1 tablespoon each of ground black pepper and cummin, increase heat to high, bring to boil, then cover, reduce heat to medium and cook for 30 minutes; add 3 cups of rice, 2 tablespoons of capers, 1/2 cup stuffed green olives, 2 tablespoons of pickled vegetables in mustard, stir to mix well, add 4 cups of water, increase heat to bring to boil then cover and reduce heat to medium, cook for 30 minutes turning the rice ocasionally to cook it uniformly, you should end with a relatively humid rice. To serve mold in center of dish and spray with cilantro.