This amazing sugar has a complex, rich taste that enhances the flavor of many Japanese sweets and snacks. It even has medicinal properties. Let’s take a deep dive into kokuto, the amazing Okinawa black sugar.
The story of kokuto starts in the 17th Century, around the tropical islands of Japan close to Taiwan – an area called Okinawa. When one of the ‘Five Great Men of Okinawa’, Shinjo Gima, travelled to China, he learned all about the sugar making process, which he brought back to Okinawa upon his return.
Following his method, the Okinawan people, known for their longevity and slow pace of life, started to slow-cook the sugar cane naturally grown on the islands, without adding or taking anything from it.
This slow cooking process means that, unlike traditional white sugar or some other cane sugars, it retains a distinct, deep, smoky flavor and also the original molasses. Even the brown sugar that we use in baking has had the molasses taken out and put back in again.
With kokuto you can be sure it’s the ‘real deal.’ Kokuto even has a season each year, January to March, when it is considered to be at its best. Kokuto makers swear that during this time the sugar is at its most melt-in-your-mouth.
After boiling sugarcane juice for hours, it’s then left to cool naturally and broken into cubes once it’s dry. You often see bags of roughly cubed kokuto in sugar aisles around Japan as this ‘unrefined’, pure image is appealing, even down to its uneven shape.
Okinawans use the kokuto in cooking but it is also known for its health benefits. Like brown rice vs. white rice, or wholemeal bread vs. white bread, you can almost see the nutrients in black sugar. And the numbers back it up, too.
There is over 500x the amount of potassium in kokuto compared to refined white sugar, (2mg vs. 1,100mg), over 200x the amount of calcium and way, way more iron. In fact, kokuto contains even more iron than spinach! So much so that it can be officially called ‘high in iron.’ In Japan, lots of women suck a cube of kokuto when they’re on their period as it’s seen to be a sweet source of iron.
To add to this, a cube of kokuto is often popped into ginger tea as a great reliever for coughs and colds.
Kokuto is a very important source of income for Okinawans even today, where it can be found in souvenir shops as a main attraction – you can find it in all sorts of fun shapes and the rough and ready cubes are sold around the world. Kokuto is only made on seven out of the 160 islands (even though only 48 are inhabited) in Okinawa.
The most famous of these is Hateruma Island, the southernmost of the inhabited Okinawan islands. As it is a coral island, it produces more sugarcanes and the flavor of Hateruma sugar is said to be even richer than other islands’ black sugar.
The draw of kokuto is so high that there was even a trade in fake kokuto. Other brands began to sell cheaper, unrefined brown sugar, trying to pass it off as the sought-after black sugar. The situation became so pronounced that in 1975 the Okinawa Prefecture Black Sugar Council produced a certification for authentic black sugar brands.
In the last 20 years, thanks to the ‘foodie’ trends that focus on rare and unusual ingredients, kokuto has seen a massive surge in popularity. When added to stir fries, Japanese stews, and more, it adds a rich depth and flavor which is enough to make any dish stand out from the rest, especially in traditional Okinawan food.
Thanks to the slow cooking process, kokuto is said to have a malty, caramel flavor with a hint of smokiness, changing up any dish you may use it in. For dieters, it is seen as a healthier, nutrient-rich alternative to refined sugar.
And it’s not only foodies and dieters who are on the kokuto hype. Across Asia, you can find lots of ready-made black sugar flavors for a variety of products. Black sugar candy, kokuto pretzels, or even kokuto whey protein.
In addition to this, alongside the rise of bubble tea, or boba tea, the interest in black sugar bubble tea has increased in interest. The dark streaks of black sugar in contrast with the light color of the milk tea make for an instantly Instagrammable drink.
Many bubble tea bars in Taiwan and beyond have been selling out of their black sugar syrup flavors, like the ‘brown sugar pearl milk’ trend of last year. There are even a myriad of recipes online detailing how you can make your own black sugar syrup to put in your tea at home (hint: add water and boil).
The kokuto trend has made its way over to the West, too. In San Francisco, the much hyped boba tea shop ‘Black Sugar’ is famed for its black sugar boba drinks, and they can be seen touting the benefits of black sugar far and wide.
If you love bubble tea, want to find a healthier alternative to sugar, or just mix up a recipe, Okinawa black sugar is a great option for you.
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