Panela chocoana is a product extracted from the sugar cane known locally as caña blanca, which is grown in the Quibdó region of Chocó Department. The sugar cane is processed until a juice known as guarapo is produced, which is cooked until it reaches a honey-like consistency, while continuously stirring with a wooden spoon. When cooked, other ingredients are added to flavor it, such as pineapple, coconut and papaya, either on their own or in combination, or, sometimes, no flavoring is added. This liquid is then put into molds until cooled and then wrapped in dried plantain leaves. This panela is used to make refreshing drinks, desserts, honey, distilled drinks and some savory sauces.
Until 30-50 years ago, sugar cane was very abundant in this region. Every family had a small piece of land where they grew it for their own consumption and to sell any excess. Those who had larger pieces of land set up a profitable business, producing and selling cane molasses. The product was thus part of the community’s daily life. Farmers, fishermen and hunters ate panela chocoana as an accompaniment to their meals, to give them energy throughout the day.
As it is difficult to prepare, panela is currently produced predominantly in the rural areas of Quibdó. A press is used to squeeze the sugar cane and the juice is cooked over a fire until it reaches the right consistency, similar to honey. In Quibdó around 600 panelas are produced per week. They can also be found at the market, every day, where fewer than ten women sell them, having carried panelas from the countryside to the city. It isn’t found in many shops and the quantity available is steadily falling, also because sugar cane cultivation by families is gradually disappearing.
Panela chocoana is at risk of disappearing, as sugar cane cultivation has very sharply declined in the region for several reasons. Mining has polluted the soil and commercial demand for molasses in the local liquor industry has fallen considerably. The latter reason has meant that small and medium-sized growers have turned their attention to other, more profitable, products.