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Updated: January 10, 2014 20:34 IST

Sugar rush

NAHLA NAINAR
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M.Suresh of M.S. Malligai in Tiruchi's Gandhi Market shows some of the jaggery on sale at his store. The jaggery's price is determined by the lightness of its colour. Photo: A. Muralitharan
The Hindu M.Suresh of M.S. Malligai in Tiruchi's Gandhi Market shows some of the jaggery on sale at his store. The jaggery's price is determined by the lightness of its colour. Photo: A. Muralitharan

Even the uncertainty in the agricultural sector has not hit the demand for jaggery in Tiruchi, especially in the run-up to Pongal

Jaggery, or vellam, is the sweet thread that binds southern Indian festivals, and this year’s Pongal celebrations are no exception. A visit to the Gandhi Market’s Vellam Mandi in Tiruchi shows that the jubilant mood of the upcoming three-day harvest festival has already set in.

With 70% of the world’s jaggery being produced in India, the country is also the largest consumer and second largest producer of sugar.

During Pongal and Deepavali, there is a preference for dishes made using jaggery over refined sugar. Traditional recipes for ‘Sakkarai pongal’, adirasam and payasam, especially in the rural areas, all use jaggery, which imparts a moist and deeper taste to the dishes.

Jaggery has as its base, a natural mixture of sugar and molasses, got after boiling down the juice of sugar-yielding crops like sugarcane, sugarbeet, palms and sorghum.

The semi-solid concentrate is then set in big trays to be shaped into ‘urundai’ (round) vellam or poured into small moulds that become ‘achu’ vellam. Powdered jaggery is also available, though it has a tendency to absorb moisture and become lumpy over time.

Most of the jaggery in Tamil Nadu is obtained from sugarcane, in a process that has somehow resisted mechanisation, says E. Senthilkumar of Ananda Traders. The store, established in 1972, is one of the biggest jaggery dealers in Tiruchi. “Tiruchi used to be the central market for jaggery before the new transport networks led to the development of region-specific markets. Just like other industries, jaggery production also got diversified,” he adds.

Same difference

The rate for jaggery sales (per 30 kg, known as a ‘sippam’) is fixed daily through auction. With the greater demand during the festive season, prices go up. At the time of writing, they were hovering between Rs. 1,300 to 1,400 per sippam.

The rate is dictated by the colour of the jaggery, the lighter, the costlier. It is another matter that the ‘fair and lovely’ colour is due to the bleaching effect of the chemicals added to remove impurities from the jaggery during the cooking process.

For Pongal, “town dwellers prefer urundai vellam, while villagers go for acchu vellam. In some areas, the people go for powdered jaggery. It’s all sugar made from sugarcane, but for some reason there is a perception that one variety is better over the other. A bit like idli and dosai which have the same rice base,” says Senthilkumar.

Gifting jaggery

Across the road and into the flower market, business is brisk at M.S. Malligai, with customers giving the 30-year-old store’s assistants at the jaggery stand little time to hang around. Demand is high for jaggery blocks to be presented as ‘seethanam’ (wedding gift).

“In many families newlywed couples are gifted jaggery and other food items on platters during auspicious days like Pongal. For the rich, this is sometimes a lifelong practice – so we sell a lot of jaggery just for gifting during the festivals. But most of our customers buy jaggery for their own cooking needs,” says M. Suresh, proprietor of the grocery. “Restauranteurs buy in bulk from us, as jaggery is used to sweeten sambar and in traditional rice-based dishes like paniaram,” he adds.

The store sources its stock from places like Pillikalpalayam, Erode, Karur, Salem and so on. “There’s no production in Tiruchi, but the mandi is big,” says Suresh.

Some varieties have an instant ‘brand value,’ says Senthilkumar of Ananda Traders. “Salem jaggery always has takers, just as ‘achu vellam’ from Palani is popular,” he adds. “It all depends on the weather and soil conditions where the sugarcane is grown.”

Bittersweet moves

Business in the run-up to Pongal is normal this year, say the traders, though agricultural income has been hit in recent times by financial and climatic uncertainty. “Pongal is slightly dull due to low rains, and the resulting water shortage,” says R. Karuppiah, owner of the R. Karuppaiah Jaggery Powder & Grains Mundy in Palakkarai.

“There were around 60 shops selling jaggery in Tiruchi before. Since 1989, this number has gone down, and many jaggery merchants have shifted to selling grains and cereals,” he adds.

The government hasn’t done much to promote or help the jaggery manufacturers who operate as a cottage industry in the state.

“Other than getting power supply at concessional rates, the sugarcane farmers are not really getting any assistance from the authorities,” says Senthilkumar.

The domestic demand for jaggery however is constant, in home cooking as well as in pharmaceutical formulations. “On a busy day, we can sell up to 3 sippams, while bigger stores can shift up to 500 sippams,” says Suresh of M.S. Malligai.

Going places

A greater awareness of jaggery’s nutritive properties (Ayurvedic medicine highlights its ability to purify the blood and prevent rheumatic and bile ailments), and the wider migration of Indians to foreign lands has seen the natural sweetener go places as well.

“Though we don’t export jaggery directly, there are firms in Chennai who sell our jaggery to shops in the United States, Canada, Norway, and generally wherever there is a sizeable Indian population,” says Senthilkumar.

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