Jaggery makers hope for a sweet Pongal

Sugarcane juice being piped into a metal kopparai in Anna Nagar, Vellore.

Sugarcane juice being piped into a metal kopparai in Anna Nagar, Vellore.

Organic jaggery manufacturers are looking forward to a sweet Pongal this year, as authorities step up efforts to check the production and sale of adulterated versions of the native sugar.

“We have held awareness workshops for over 130 wholesalers and retailers in Tiruchi district about the dangers of adulterated jaggery. We will also be conducting spot checks on shops to test the quality of their jaggery stock. Violators will be penalised,” R. Ramesh Babu, Designated Officer, Food Safety and Drug Administration,Tiruchi, told The Hindu .

The harvest festival is a peak time for jaggery production in southern India, especially in Tamil Nadu, where Pongal is celebrated over three days with the natural sweetener used in a number of festive dishes and rituals.

However, the preference for golden coloured jaggery among customers had created a thriving business in these varieties, even though hazardous and unapproved additives are used by manufacturers. As recently as two years ago, at least 90% of the jaggery produced in the State was labelled as adulterated by Tamil Nadu Foodgrains Merchants Association.

Awareness drives and fines levied on adulterated jaggery manufacturers have slowly brought the focus back on the original product.

“Things have improved to the extent that bulk buyers are insisting on natural jaggery, but there are still pockets of market where the fake stuff is a best-seller,” said P. Balathandayuthabani, co-founder, B&B Organics, an e-commerce platform for nature-friendly food items based out of suburban Tiruchi.

B&B Organics has stocked up on five tonnes of organic jaggery for Pongal this year, having it processed in Anna Nagar near Vellore.

Mr. Bala and manufacturer Selva Sivaraj, source the sugarcane for their jaggery from a network of 500 farmers spread across the State, in order to ensure quality. “The colour, a dark reddish brown, is the first sign of natural jaggery. The taste is the second marker. Natural jaggery dissolves easily in the mouth, while adulterated version is usually harder,” said Mr. Sivaraj.

The best jaggery requires the sugarcane to be a year-old when harvested. “Even a 10-month old plant will lack the deep taste of the year-old sugarcane,” he said.

Once the sugarcane juice is extracted mechanically, it is cooked in large metal cauldrons called ‘kopparai’ over medium heat, until caramelised. “Impurities are removed with the help of okra stem juice or ‘chunnambu’ (lime paste), and coconut oil is added to enhance the flavour.

Workers shape jaggery into mounds by hand as the mixture cools down.

P. Manoharan, who runs Sri Krishna Jaggery Mill in Avadaiyarkoil, Pudukottai with his father, said that poor local demand for their organic product had made them look abroad for new customers.

“We recently sent two tonnes of jaggery to the UK, and currently we have bulk orders for up to 10 tonnes from countries like Oman, Bahrain and Dubai,” said Mr. Manoharan, who uses a shipping agent in Kerala. “It would be good if our own people would patronise us more.”

Customers should stop judging jaggery by its colour, he said. “Dangerous chemical additives like laundry dyes are being used to get fancy coloured jaggery. Only those who know the nutritional value of our product will seek us out,” he said.

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 8:48:54 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/jaggery-makers-hope-for-a-sweet-pongal/article38250370.ece