Noshtalgia | Food

Date palm jaggery, and the sweetness of Bengal winters

A vendor with earthen pots full of date palm jaggery in Joynagar.

A vendor with earthen pots full of date palm jaggery in Joynagar. | Photo Credit: AFP

Winter is well on its way out now, and we are lapping up the last of the bright red winter carrots and pale green fresh peas. For us, winters always meant two things — ma’s ‘to die for’ peas kachori and khejurer gur. From sweets made on Makar Sankranti to the thick, creamy payesh and the everyday comfort food of doodh-bhaat (milk and rice), khejurer gur nudged and pushed white sugar out of business and elevated the mundane. I would break pieces of the soft, deep caramel gur and put it on my tongue and savour the complex sweetness slowly spreading in my mouth. It was like a small piece of sweet warmth. I still think this is the best way to eat it. Ma had trusted sources who would procure and deliver to her good quality khejurer gur from Bengal to Assam, the softer ones for immediate use and the harder roundels to last through the year, safely tucked in airtight containers inside the refrigerator. My sister and I inherited this trait and we fulfil it every year like a family ritual.

Khejurer gur or date palm jaggery, that highly prized seasonal produce, occupies a place of pride in Bengal’s already accomplished sweet-making history. As far back as the 4th century BC, Panini wrote, Gurasha auang desho goura , which means Gour is the place of gur. It is, however, difficult to know exactly when khejurer gur became popular in Bengal. Some early references can be found from the history of Joynogorer moa. The old Pundra Bardhan in undivided Bengal, now Bogra in Bangladesh, became known as Gour for its high-quality gur produced from sugarcane. At that time, Mitraganj was a famous market in Joynagar, which is now in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. A weekly market or haat was held on Mondays and Fridays in that village where people from different villages came to sell gur. The fine quality of the date palm jaggery sold in this haat is orally documented in the Piruli song of Farid Pir and also in the folk poems of Dakshin Kalikapur village. The reason why a more formal, ‘Sanskritised’ documentation of the origin of khejurer gur is unavailable is because the Siulis – the artisans — belonged to the lower castes.


Amir Sheikh and his younger brother shift home from Nadia to Adityapur village in Burdawan district for three to four months every winter. This means staying in makeshift huts, away from their families and creature comforts. A few kilometres away, near the Kopai river in Bolpur, Sabir stays with his family of four, including two infants. These families are all seasonal nomads, Siulis, who specialise in tapping the sap of the date palm tree and making khejurer gur.

The Siulis mostly belong to Scheduled Castes or Tribes, or to the Mahishya and Muslim community, and they are spread across the four-five major gur producing districts of Bengal — Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Malda. While the demand for khejurer gur has steadily increased over the years, nobody really knows much about its unique and climate-sensitive production or about the community that produces it. In the absence of this connect, the Siulis, the men who scale the thorny trees to collect the sap, are almost never acknowledged.

Obtaining the sap requires skill. The tapping is generally done at night, with an intervening period of rest for the tree. The Siulis climb the tree at dusk, cut the end of the inflorescence (flower cluster), and hang an earthen container from it, leaving it overnight to catch the dripping sap. The tree cannot be tapped if the weather is foggy, drizzly or warm, as the sap will become turbid and sour. It’s this that makes the gur so sensitive to climatic conditions. The fresh sap of the wild date palm is sweet, fragrant and as clear as drinking water. Rich in vitamins and iron and with 12-15% sugar, it is a delicious thirst quencher.

However, it ferments quickly along with the rising sun to turn into the alcoholic tari , so the Siulis start work before the crack of dawn. The pots are brought down from the trees and the collected sap is filtered and poured into open troughs. This juice is then put to boil till the Brix value reaches 118-120%, a calculation that experienced Siulis like Amir make just by sight and touch alone, without any modern instruments.

Many varieties

Date palm jaggery can be eaten as nolen gur — the softer, golden coloured gur, named after the nol , or the pipe that is used to collect the sap, and from nolen meaning new. Or as jhola gur, the viscous liquid gur made by reducing the sap but stopping short of crystallisation.

Jhola comes from the Bengali word for ‘hanging’ — the way the pots are hung. Jhola gur has low shelf life but high aroma, and is used to make the famous Joynagarer moa. Then there is poyra gur, from the word poila or ‘first’, for the gur made from the first sap of the season. This is believed to be the best variety because of the elongated period of rest that the tree gets.

The jhola gur made from the first sap is called jiren jhola gur — ‘jiren’ being the word for resting. The jiren gur is almost translucent. The sap is reduced further on low heat and poured into terracotta moulds to yield the solidified patali, which has the highest shelf life of about eight months but is the most compromised on flavour.

Khejurer gur has now became a part of fine dining and has inspired several refined sweets, but the first jhola gur each season still evokes memories of a winter special Bengali breakfast of luchi and jhola gur. Or, as the famous poet Sukumar Ray recalled, “kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur” — the best of all is bread with jhola gur.


Jhola gur diye moong-narkoler ichhamura

(Sweet croquettes of moongbeans-coconut served with jhola gur)

This is a take on the Bengali pithe ichhamura, which gets its name from the oblong shape that apparently resembles a prawn head.


1 1/2 cup jhola gur

Refined oil for deep frying

For dough:

150 gms shredded coconut

75 gms moong daal

200 gms sugar

50 gms kheer/ khoya

2 inches cinnamon

1/4 cup water

1 tbsp ghee

2-3 tbsp maida


1. Take sugar and water in a kadhai and put on medium heat. Let it come to a boil. Add the coconut, mix on low flame for five minutes and add khoa. Keep stirring till it becomes sticky and coconut is glossy. Remove from fire, transfer to another container and let it cool a bit till you can handle the mix.

2. Roast the moong daal in ghee, add cinnamon and boil in just enough water so that the daal is cooked and the water is absorbed. Remove half the cinnamon stick, cool, and make a smooth paste in a blender. Prep the daal mix before the coconut.

3. Mix the moong daal, coconut and maida together and form a smooth dough.

4. Take a tbsp of the mix and mould into inch-long oblong croquettes. Deep fry till golden brown in hot refined oil.

5. Heat the jhola gur in a pan and put the ichhamura right after draining the oil into the jhola gur. Soak for a while and serve, with spoonfuls of jhola gur drizzled on top.

Note: Drop a little dough into the oil and check if you need more maida to bind. Do not add much as it will ruin the taste. Do not fry in piping hot oil as it will brown the outside too quickly and blister it too.

The writer is part-time culinary historian, part-time development professional and full-time storyteller.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:28:51 am |