South Asian Jaggery- the 24 carat Gold

Written by Silpi Patnaik

“Run Run, as fast as you can…you can’t catch me I’m a Gingerbread Man”, says the puny gingerbread cookie man in a famous kid’s fantasy fable. It is time for the world to know where this trifling got all the indomitable energy from. The answer is Molasses- the sweeter elder brother of JAGGERY- one of the most acclaimed sugars used in South Asian cuisine and therefore the celebrated protagonist of this piece. 

A Precise Introduction to Jagerry 

Jaggery, commonly called as Gur, is a gold toned plant based sugar produced from sugarcane and toddy palm trees tapped primarily in India, Bangladesh, Srilanka since aeons. It goes into the preparation of a range of dishes majority of which are traditional desserts and is known to infuse into them a unique flavour, enrichment and wholesomeness.  For instance, Indian whole milk Rabri or Pakistani Sheer Khurma when made with jagerry result in an aromatic pudding and stay qualitatively intact for days together while its refined sugar-made counterpart lack the flavours and starts ameliorating with the passage of time.  

Jaggery provides a regal dimension to the desserts and can therefore be considered as the Golden Food of South Asia. However, the goodness and the greatness of Jaggery extend much beyond its taste. First lets understand how Jaggery is produced and prepared before discussing the aspects that make it such pure and divine. 

Production and Preparation of Jaggery– A Bird’s-Eye View 

The production of Jaggery involves a few elaborate steps. Firstly, cane juice is extracted from sugarcane plants using high power crusher machines. Then the extracted juice is heated over low flame and boiled steadily over a prolonged period of time till it comes to golden coloured, thick thread-like dripping consistency. It is finally left to cool and solidify at room temperature that could be moulded into block- like shapes. These blocks are rectangular, oblong or round. It is usually grated directly into the dishes or melted into a thick syrup prior to using it.  Jaggery is also available in powdered form in modern days for greater convenience. While Srilanka is considered to be the producer of the most raw, organic and the highest quality Jaggery (Kithul Jaggery), “Kolhapur, a Maharashtrian city in India, happens to be” the largest producer of Jaggery holding a GI Tag” for it(says Wikipedia). 

Whether it is the cardamom-spiced Wattallapam of Srilanka, the rice-flour brewed Handesh of Bangladesh or the crunchy Tilgud Ladoos of India, Jaggery is used in a variety of South Asian desserts. Bits of jaggery is also used in many other food staples like SambharRasam, Vegetable dishes, Chutneys, Curries and Condiments to balance their taste and enhance their nutritional values. Nowadays, Jaggery has even replaced brown sugar and is many a time used as a sweetner in cakes, macaroons, cookies and other western confectioneries. It should be noted at this juncture that Jaggery has an inherent balancing nature in it due to the virtue of which it is treated as one of the Divine Elixirs  according to Hindu culture. It enjoys a position amongst the time-honoured holy “Panchamrit”, the sacred concoction made up of yogurt, milk, clarified butter, honey and liquid jaggery 

Many households in India still believe in starting their mornings with a little dollop of jaggery and a quarter spoon of ghee(carified butter)along with their breakfast ParathasDosas or Upmas to ensure that their bodies and minds are taken care of for the rest of the day. It is still customary to serve shards of jaggery to guests and visitors  as it is the purest form of food. Many doctors still advise swallowing pieces of jaggery to someone going low on energy or immediately after donating blood when the body is dizzy and needs a gush of strength to produce fresh blood. 

Why Jaggery has endured the test of time:Benefits of Jaggery 

Improves Digestion-  Apart from Yoga, Jaggery is also known to work wonders on our digestive system. It is a natural laxative that stimulates the digestive enzymes of the body thereby regulating bowel movement or any kind of issues associated with the same.  It is owing to this diuretic nature of Jaggery, that many people in South Asia still chew a wedge of Jaggery after meals just to kick start their digestive process. 

Maintains Body Temperature- Jaggery works like a thermostat. It is known to possess unique temperature controlling qualities since it regulates body temperature both in hot and cold weathers. It cools the stomach and provides the much needed calm to our bodies in hot summers because of which South Asians swear by Jaggery drinks/ Gur Sherbets/ Gur Wali Lassis 

Further, Jaggery “helps dilate blood vessels and create warmth in the body”(according to a source in Quora) due to which it is beneficial during winters too. Ragi LadoosBesan Ladoos, Dry Fruit Bars made with jaggery are usually consumed in the day to instill a pump of heat and a jolt of energy into our bodies during extreme cold weathers. Jaggery has therapeutic and cathartic functions too due to which it is used as an important ingredient in “Kadha”, a traditional homemade medicinal concoction that helps in treating cold, cough, flu and virals.

Works on Immunity – Jaggery is full of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants like Vit B12, Calcium, Zinc, etc that protect body against seasonal infections and contagious viruses. It detoxifies the liver, cleanses the internal system, builds a protective shield around the body and helps in building overall resistance. It is, therefore, advised to add chunks of jaggery into baby foods, especially during change of seasons, so that the otherwise feeble and fragile newborns/toddlers are not adversely affected by the sudden change in climatic conditions. Regular administration of Jaggery ensures that they grow with a robust immunity.

Prevents Anemia – Rich in Folate and IronJaggery is known to maintain the level of RBCs. It also helps maintain the count of haemoglobin in the blood. It is a source of instant energy too.

Skin-Friendly – Jaggery is a natural cleanser and blood purifier. It helps in flushing out the unwanted and the unnecessary thereby making the skin breathe a lease of fresh air. Unlike the harmful effects that refined sugar has on skin, Jaggery is proven to have a Midas touch. No wonder, it is known as Pure Gold! 

Jaggery vs White Sugar- A Final Note 

Photo by Evan Hein on Unsplash

One of my baker friends once idolized white refined sugar by commenting that her cakes don’t fluff up as beautifuly , as evenly and as attractively when made with jaggery or any other white sugar alternative. “White sugar makes the fluffiest, softest and the most desirable cupcakes in the world”, she said with glimmering, glittering eyes.  The remark might hold true as long as we are driven by the external beauty, commercial convenience and ease brought in by White Sugar.  But aren’t we aware that White Refined Sugar has immense deleterious effects on our blood sugar levels causing it to spike aggressively thereby doing much harm to our health! All it has ever done is to provide momentary satisfaction to our haywire hormones just to show its effects on the skin as pimples, acnes and scars. On the other hand Jaggery is mature, dense and truthful for the sheer fact that it is restorative, recuperative, remedial and to certain extent redemptive. Shouting a loud “No” to refined Sugar and replacing it with the gold-tinted, unrefined gem called Jaggery would be the finest step towards true empowerment. Once our Health is put in order, everything else would gradually fall into place. It is not for nothing that we say Jaggery to be “the twenty four carat Gold of South Asia.”