Where would the Maldives be without the coconut palm? Apart from struggling to capture the imagination of tourists with silhouettes of swaying tuna, life would be far less sweet for many reasons.
Dhiyaa hakuru, or liquid sugar, is one of them.
As the palm tree has swayed into the economic background in recent decades, sugar in the Maldives has been transformed from a local luxury to an imported commodity. Days of painstaking work have become a short walk to the shop (though far too short to deal with the nation’s expanding waistlines).
But the art of the sugar-making is still needed for many local recipes, as well as to give a reminder of the patience, perseverance and sustainable living that have characterised society in the middle of the ocean; the authentic flavours of island life.
Dhiyaa hakuru would traditionally have been produced by the raiveriya, who draws the sap from the tree by carefully trimming the stem three times a day to keep it flowing. With the same process used for toddy-tapping, sugar makers then carefully tie and cover the end of the stem to prevent the fibres spreading apart and drying out.
After enough sap is collected, it is placed in a large pan and boiled, with 14 litres eventually being reduced over three days to around 2 litres of sugary syrup. The fire kindled at this house in Gaafu Dhaalu Madaveli uses locally collected wood and coconut husks – far cheaper than imported gas. Indeed, everything used in the process can be found in most islanders’ back gardens.
Perhaps the key part of the process, and a sign of classic island ingenuity, is the addition of coral rocks from the beach, which are added and replaced multiple times during the cooking process. While these magic stones are said to prevent the sugar from burning, the limestone is likely to be playing a similar role to the calcium carbonate added to sugarcane juice during industrial refining processes.
In factories, the added lime attracts and bonds with unwanted plant fats and waxes, clarifying the mixture and helping to produce a fine granulated product. While the island refining process is clearly less effective, and the science not fully understood, it does mean that every jar of dhiyaa hakuru tastes truly Maldivian.
At around MVR200 for a 500ml (far more in Male’) compared with MVR10 for a kilo of imported sugar, most people complain that Maldivian sugar is too expensive, and is not for daily consumption. But perhaps consideration of this traditional approach to one of the islands’ little luxuries can make them better appreciated, as well as providing a timely reminder about healthy diets.