A honey-brown jaggery mound, sticky and sweet, rests on my shelf, holding its shape around a yielding core. It has taken many hours of work to reduce pale green sugarcane juice to this decadent form. My love for this sweet treat is shared by many others across the country, hundreds of kilometres away from Karnataka’s Gadag district — where Sangappa Kori’s Dharitri initiative has farmers making artisanal jaggery using traditional methods.
In Kolkata, Saroj Kumar Agarwal, founder, Max Health, an online division of Ambo Agritec that takes Bengali specialities to people’s homes, eats his breakfast with the much-loved winter speciality, nolen gur . The flavourful syrup was harvested sometime in January from date palm growing in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district.
And in Borpothar village in Assam’s Golaghat, teacher Manikarnika Bora recalls her childhood, when the family would feast on jaggery from her maternal grandfather’s patch of sugarcane behind the house. The juice would be cooked over a wood fire and the gur stored in pots for use through the year and mixed with rice flour to make the near-unbreakable poka mithoi .
The first taste of artisanal jaggery lingers for life. A sliver off a golden-brown mound or a spoon of velvety nolen can take you back to sugarcane fields or palm trees that reach for the sky, of a taste that first enticed your ancestors.
Unlike mass-produced sugar, making jaggery has always been a people-centric task. Guwahati-based food blogger Puspanjalee Das Dutta says that whenever gur is made, a community feast is a must, as it takes time, people and effort.
The country abounds with local jaggery traditions, featuring the more prominent sugarcane, or the rarer, more delicate date palm, palmyra or coconut blossoms. If the one from sugarcane is redolent of sweetness and ranges in texture from hard and flaky to firm, palm jaggery is smoother and has a caramelly overtone. And a small group keeps alive ancient, eco-friendly processes, unmindful of profits.
Arun K Pandey of Palm Sugar and Palm Products Research and Promotion Foundation (PPRPF) in Hyderabad is on a mission to get people to fall in love with native sugar. The group has two working units — in Erode in Tamil Nadu and in Nadia in West Bengal — and it manufactures palm sugar/jaggery retailed under the brand name Sweetee (priced upwards of ₹400 a kilo).
There is also the ephemeral nolen gur (₹700 a kilo, and said to be a competitor to maple syrup), available for a short window in the winter. By now, the last few batches of this are being zealously preserved in the pantry of some over-zealous gourmand who cannot bear to part with a slice of winter.
Every jaggery artist banks on nature and the community — the right temperature to lend the cane and gur the aroma; correct processing time to ensure the juice is not fermented before cooking; patience to wait for the right texture; and the righteousness to not go commercial. Did you know, asks Pandey, that palm sugar is made by boiling the sap to a particular temperature, covering it and leaving it to rest underground for 45 days in small vessels with threads hanging into them, to enable crystal formation and prevent lumps?
Kori’s NGO, founded in 1988, has 30-40 sugarcane farmers tilling about 400 acres. His group works on the soil to ensure it is free of chemicals, pesticides and BT crops. The yield is about 40 to 60 tonnes an acre, versus the approximately 90 tonnes an acre for a commercial field. Purist farmers cut only as much cane as they can crush and process. Five layers of filtering later, the juice bubbles away in massive stainless steel vats that can handle about 1,000 litres. Powdered okra plants are added to remove the scum. During peak season, from October to June, the group makes up to 10 quintals a day (about ₹90 to ₹100 at source) and sends it to places as far away as Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram.
Brand it right
In Kolkata, patali gur (₹600 a kilo), a darker, flavourful cooking gur , is made from the palmyra palm, as is palm candy or tal mishri (₹200 a kilo). Agarwal says it takes work to bring tradition to the masses. “The first year, we failed miserably when it came to supply. There were leakages, hiccups in transportation. This year, we handled well-packed Joynagarer Moa (approximately ₹500 a kilo) made using nolen gur . Nolen was packaged in a specially designed glass bottle, and the air content brought down.” About 500 bottles were sent out every day. The trick, he says, is to get the source right.
In Valavaadi in Udumalpet, Niranjani Ramanathan is getting ready to check on the output from the ice-boxes attached to slit coconut blossoms. The deeply flavoured jaggery and the much milder sugar retailed under the Coco Tier brand (online too, priced at ₹700 a kilo of sugar and ₹300 for jaggery) come from one acre of coconut farm, organically raised. “Even during peak season, we can do only about 25-30 kg of jaggery a day and about 300 kg of sugar a month. That’s the kind of labour involved,” she says. This sugar has a slightly bitter afternote, a deep caramel aroma and a hint of tender coconut.
Bora recalls how jaggery would be measured with the flick of a sharp knife, and melted over the day’s breakfast — sticky rice with milk, or poha. And, how their lollipop was likotia gur , caramelised gur stuck on a stick and given to kids. What’s your jaggery memory?