Thanks to the wonky weather we’ve been having lately, it seems like everyone is getting sick. It’s been a few weeks since I recovered from my scratchy throat and overall malaise but it was enought to knock me off my excercising, healthy eating and blogging wagon – or maybe that’s just a convenient excuse…
Fortunately Colombians have something of an elixir for colds and it’s called agua de panela or aguapanela (panela water). A very large percentage of Colombians, or at least Colombian mothers and grandmothers, put some water on to boil and prepare a steaming mug of aguapanela with loads of lemon juice the minute someone starts feeling sick.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well there are conflicting stories about how good aguapanela actually is for you.
Is it just sugary water or does it contain minerals and vitamins as some claim?
Aguapanela is an extremely popular drink in several Central and South American countries especially Colombia and is the most common use for panela, a by-product of the sugar making process in the form of hardened, concentrated cane syrup. If you live elsewhere you might know it as raspadura, papelón, panocha, jaggery, etc.
Colombians, especially peasants or campesinos, rely on aguapanela as a main source of calories. All in all they consume approximately 32 kilos per year, per person. It’s an inexpensive, locally produced food and people say it has more vitamin C that orange juice and as many hydrating minerals as a sports drink. Of course, nowadays aguapanela is blamed for everything from cavities to diabetes and obesity.
From what I could find, aguapanela does contain some vitamin C, iron and calcium but not much. Tests performed on rats did show that aguapanela helps ease respiratory problems however, so that’s some good news. Plus, I can’t imagine that drinking aguapanela could be any worse than drinking Coke. Everything in moderation.
If you go shopping for panela in Colombia you’ll find blocks of it and for your convenience you can now find panela in powdered form or little cubes (like sugar cubes) that you drop in hot water and dissolve in just a few seconds. Doña Panela is one of the most commonly seen brands and it comes in a wide variety of flavors (wow, the colors in this picture from their website are a little shocking).
You can drink it hot or cold, with water or milk, and with additions of lemon juice, ginger or pretty much whatever you want. If you come across a Canelazo you’ll be having hot aguapanela with aguardiente and cinammon. And if you stop by a Juan Valdez Café and order a Tinto Campesino, guess what it will be sweetened with – panela!
You can cook with it too, of course. A lot of desserts are made with melao, a syrup made out of panela. If you happen to be in Chia make plans to stop by Quesos La Especial (just outside of Bogotá – Address in Chia: Cra 1 Nª 7-11). They serve aguapanela there too but most importantly they make an incredible cuajada (a local fresh cheese). If you get there early, it’s still warm and soft – just eat it straight or smother slices of cuajada with warm melao.
No matter what its nutritional value may actually be, I am still convinced that panela/aguapanela does have some sort of healing properties even if they are psychological. And also, if my mom says its good for me, then it is.
Erica from My Colombian Recipes has a simple recipe for melao:
Melao de Panela
- 1 cup grated panela
- 2 cups water
- 1 cinammon stick
- Pinch ground cloves
Place all the ingredients in a small pot and cook over medium-low heat until panela has dissolved and the mixture has reached a syrupy consistency.
Transfer to serving dish and cool.