How India’s liquid gold or jaggery is making a comeback

How India’s liquid gold or jaggery is making a comeback

Thousands of years old, gur or jaggery offers more benefits than processed sugar

Jaggery-based shortbread. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Jaggery-based shortbread. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit:

Dubai: What if all the sugar you consume had a healthy substitute? The answer is jaggery or gur; a natural sweetener made from sugarcane juice or palm and coconut trees sap. A sweetener consumed in Africa, certain regions of Central America (goes by the name ‘Panela’), Portuguese (by the name rapadura) and Asia, jaggery is most widely used and consumed on the Indian subcontinent.

Many online publications mention that this yellow-hued sweet was first brought to India by the Portuguese traders to the south Indian state of Kerala in the late 1600s, deriving its name from the Portuguese word jagara.

In fact, in the early days in India, sarkara (a Sanskrit language word) or modern-day jaggery was the only known sweetener. Even in India’s alternative medicinal practice of Ayurveda, numerous health benefits of consuming jaggery are cited. Speaking to Gulf News, Dubai-based Nutritionist Shilpa Mundada said:

Jaggery is healthy. It is a complex form of natural sugar.” Comparing it to refined sugar, she explained jaggery’s nutritional content. “They have nearly equal calorie profiles, but the process of digestion and absorption is different as they are processed differently. Plus, it has a higher medicinal and nutritional value. Sugar consists only of sucrose, full of empty calories, whereas jaggery comprises sucrose (70 per cent) and nutrients such as minerals, salts, iron, and fibre. Ferrous salts (iron) are good for health and are recommended for anaemia or iron deficiency. Though the amount of iron present in jaggery is less than recommended dietary allowances, consuming a small portion of it will boost or contribute to the recommended iron intake.

- Shilpa Mundada

In the wake of a healthy lifestyle, many food processing companies and consumers are looking for alternative sweeteners. In the UAE, leading culinary institutes like International Centre for Culinary Arts - ICCA Dubai highlights various health benefits of jaggery. They mention how jaggery is an excellent detoxifier, blood purifier and immunity booster among many other benefits.

Of shape, texture and taste

If you aren’t familiar with what these sweet bites look like, here is a guide. Jaggery looks like soft blocks, ranging from light yellow to dark brown. They can also be in granulated form. Many purists also believe that the darker the colour of jaggery, the better, as it has been processed lesser, thus retaining the original hue. As for its taste, jaggery tastes woody, caramel-like, with a hint of bitterness. An acquired taste that grows on you with time.

Organic palm jaggery
Organic palm jaggery Image Credit:

Leila, a 28-years-old expatriate from Uganda, East Africa explains how jaggery is used in a popular sweet snack made from peanuts called Njugu (pronounced Jugu), much like the Indian sweet snack called chikki. She said: “My five-year-old daughter loves to munch on this brittle sweet snack; it is a trendy snack with kids in my country.” For her, the taste of jaggery brings nostalgia, in the form of taste and sweet memories of childhood. She also said that on the western coast of Africa – Nigeria, a rice delicacy made from carrot and jaggery is very popular.

A peanut-based sweet snack made using jaggery
Chikki, a peanut-based sweet snack made using jaggery Image Credit:

Similarly, in the Indian state of West Bengal, popular classic Bengali sweet dishes made from jaggery are gurer payesh (rice pudding), pithe (sweet dumplings), sandesh (cottage cheese-based dessert) and the seasonal nolen gur rosogulla (served in a handi or clay pot). Here, nolen gur means new jaggery, which is extracted from palms and is often referred to as ‘liquid gold’. A prized possession for the labour and the process it undergoes. Come November, you will see gur makers in West Bengal strike a deal with date palm tree landowners to collect the sap and prepare nolen gur. The labourers camp or live in makeshift huts for three to four months, collecting the juice and preparing batches of jaggery to be sold in markets. Traditionally it is available in two forms, solid or patali gur and liquid or jhola gur. A sweetener with significant cultural importance, gur has been mentioned in Bengali literature and films. For instance, in Bengali author Narendranath Mitra’s fictional story – Ras, the economics and social construct of gur makers are narrated through a tale.

Sweet sap from date palm. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Sweet sap from date palm. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit:

In the eastern Indian states, people often eat dahi chuda gur or flattened rice with yoghurt and crumbled jaggery for breakfast, especially during summers. It happens to be a popular breakfast dish in many Assamese homes too.

Types of jaggery and how they are made

Like sugar, jaggery is obtained from raw, concentrated sugarcane or palm juice. It is basically unrefined sugar. The first step is the extraction – canes or palms are pressed to extract the juices, then comes the clarification. The fluid can rest in large containers in this step, so any sediment settles and is later strained to get a clear liquid. Next comes the concentration or purification. Here the juice is poured into a large pan or pot and boiled. Lastly, they are poured into blocks or moulds and allowed to rest until solidified. So how is this process different from that of making sugar? Here, the molasses and crystals are not separated, which gives jaggery its full-bodied character.

Jaggery preparation
Jaggery preparation Image Credit:

There are three popular kinds of jaggery sources – coconut, palm and sugarcane. Coconut jaggery is prepared using unfiltered and unfermented extracts of coconut sap and is very sweet in taste. Palm jaggery is extracted from palm sap, deriving their sweetness from dates with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. The third and most popular - sugarcane jaggery is derived from unrefined sugarcane juice and relished in its solid form.

Sweet memories…

In many Indian homes, winter dinners include smearing melted ghee or clarified butter and crumbled gur on soft pillowy rotis or unleavened flatbread. It is called mithi roti or sweet flatbreads. But that’s not the only manner in how jaggery can be used. Speaking to Gulf News Food, Head Chef Adwait Anantwar at Mohalla Restaurant in Dubai explained: 

Jaggery can be crushed and put in liquid drinks (flavoured cold drinks), such as sherbet, powdered to make sweet dishes like ladoos or added to tea. But to add it to milk, you should boil jaggery along with water and make a thick syrup, or else the milk will curdle. Call it a desi [Indian] version of caramel syrup.

- Chef Adwait Anantwar

It’s time to give this sweetener a try. Add it to your daily cup of tea, crumble it on bread and melted butter, smear it on rotis or unleavened flatbread or just eat it on its own. Like many forms of jaggery, there are many ways to eat it.

Here is a sweet recipe to making Gur Papdi or jaggery based dessert and a Kerala classic recipe for Aval Vilayichathu or sweetened beaten rice flakes.

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