Most people would think that the famous Costa Rican coffee would be the obvious morning drink, but actually, the traditional breakfast drink is called Agua Dulce ("sweet water"). Made from the “typical” local ingredient “Tapa de Dulce”, these familiar (or not so familiar) molded small cakes of firm compacted brown sugar product are very similar to the North American "brown sugar" we buy in a bag.
Also known in many Costa Rican homes simply as “Bebida”, the sugary cane liquid is extracted, boiled, evaporated and eventually poured into conical molds, which are cooled, at which time the tops are cut off making them tapas ("lids"). The traditional drink of “Agua Dulce” is made by cutting or scraping off a bit of the tapa and gently dissolving it in boiling water or hot milk. Delicious!
Know by many names throughout the world, Tapa de Dulce can also be called “Panela”, “AtadoDulce”, “Raspadura”, “Rapadura”, “Chancaca”, “Papelon”, “Piloncillo”, “Panocha”, “Empanizao”, “Melaza y Cuyo” and many many other varying names depending on the region and/or country you are in at any given moment.
Consisting completely of Sugar Cane juice, to make the popular molded Tapa disks old traditions held to using oxen or sometimes donkeys or mules to run the small rural processing “plants” better known as “Trapiches”. Not being easy to extract the sugary juice from the cane stalks, the animals were much more efficient back in those days, but alas…today it is almost completely a mechanized process being much more efficient and sanitary then using the animals. Back in the early 1900’s, Costa Rica had more than 1600 Trapiches, but today they have almost completely dissappeared, and a national cry has gone out to not let this tradition completely disappear. Costa Rica Hotels and Tour Operators have projects in the works to incorporate the Trapiche Farms in to rural tourism centers, directly sharing the experience with visitors from around the world. Unfortunately, this idea is far from fruition at this point.
Not a totally empty calorie sugar product, Panela or Tapa de Dulce differenciates itself from ordinary white sugar with measurable amounts of glucose, fructose, proteins, as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, phosphorous, and trace vitamins such as absorbic acid. It’s said to have “medicinal” properties as well, but more on that below!
When preparing a cup of Agua Dulce, add a small chunk shaved off the molded Tapa de Dulce sugar block and mix with a small amount of hot water, working it until it’s the consistency of honey. Then either add hot water (“Agua Dulce”), or hot milk (“Bebida”) and enjoy! In the Atlantic region of Limón, the Agua Dulce is served cold and mixed with lemon juice and a hint of ginger. This is known as “Agua de Sapo” (Toad Water) or “Hiel” and is another refreshing way to enjoy sugar cane juice. But why stop there? Do you have a cold? Mix the Agua Dulce with lemon juice and an ounce of “Guaro” (Cane Liquor), which is said to be the best remedy in Costa Rica and sure to make your pains go away!
Colombia is the leader in the Panela industry, providing an important source of employment for that country with around 350,000 people working in approximately 20,000 Trapiches or Panela Farms.
In fact, the city of Palmira, Colombia broke the world record in 2009 for the largest and heaviest Panela, with a molded sugar cake that measured 10 feet and 20 inches and weighing some 715 kilos! This required more than 70 tons of sugar cane, and 90 people working for 28 hours consecutively to complete.
So are you ready to try this tasty little treat? To buy your own Tapa de Dulce, head to your nearest typical “soda”, Costa Rican supermarket or the Pulpería (corner store). If you aren’t lucky enough to be in Costa Rica, you can buy Tapa de Dulce online at:
VIDEO FOR GRIPE (a cold):
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.