Returning to foggy Delhi from the hills a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a friend’s house in sunny Dehradun for lunch. I always enjoy my meals there. Everything tastes superb, because most of the ingredients in his kitchen come from his farm. But, more than anything else, I love what I end my meal with — a soft roti, smeared with melted ghee, and topped with powdered gur or jaggery.
This was my favourite dessert during my childhood in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh. Even now, I can make a full meal out of just roti, ghee and gur; sometimes with just roti and gur. And memories of this most-loved dish are especially sweet in winter, when people celebrate a spate of festivals with jaggery.
January is when gur is used in all kinds of sweets — from laddoos and puran polis to kheer and pitheys. “The year starts with harvest festivals: Makar Sankranti in the north, Lohri in Punjab, Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh,” writes Colleen Taylor Sen in Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India . And jaggery, she points out, figures in the dishes especially prepared for the festivals.
In Maharashtra, for instance, Makar Sankranti is celebrated with til gul — sesame and jaggery balls. The January 13 bonfire festival of Lohri is marked not just with songs, but also with jaggery and peanuts. Bengal’s pithey and patishapta — crepes prepared with rice flour or maida — often have a filling of coconut and jaggery.
It’s not surprising, for long before sugar came into our lives, there was gur. “The gritty brown sugar of India is guda in Sanskrit, gur in Hindi, vellam in Tamil and jaggery in English,” writes food historian K.T. Achaya in A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food . “Though the sugarcane itself is mentioned even in Rigveda, the viscous phanita [thickened juice] and solid guda made by boiling down its juice first occur only a millennium later in Sutra literature.”
In another of his volumes, Indian Food: A Historical Companion , he writes: “Charaka derives guda (for jaggery) from Gauda (as Bengal was then called)… Kautilya (c. 300 BC) mentions the whole range of sugar products including guda.”
As you would expect, M.K. Gandhi writes not just about the use of jaggery but also about the problems of farmers. “According to the medical testimony I have reproduced in these columns, gur is any day superior to refined sugar in food value, and if the villagers cease to make gur as they are already beginning to do, they will be deprived of an important food adjunct for their children. They may do without gur themselves, but their children cannot without undermining their stamina. Gur is superior to bazaar sweets and to refined sugar,” he writes in Harijan .
I bravely resisted all attempts by my mother to teach me Bengali (I was worried that if I succumbed, I would have to start singing Rabindra Sangeet with a harmonium), but sometimes I feel I should have learnt the language just to read Sukumar Ray. Among his nonsense verse, I am told, is a poem that gives jhola gur — liquid molasses — its rightful place under the sun.
Everything is good in this world, the poem goes — you, me, the real, the unreal, dark, fair… But best of all, the poet holds, is “pauruti aar jhola gur” — bread and liquid jaggery. To that, I may add, roti smeared with ghee and gur.
The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.