On a trip late last year to Punjab in India’s north, I saw what looked like clouds of smoke rising from little plots of land dotted along the roadside. The smell, on the other hand, was divine, the stuff lazy childhood dreams are made of.
A closer look revealed entire families of farmers hauling thick bundles of sugar cane that were being pulped to a juice, and then boiled, cleaned and stirred with giant ladles in huge cauldrons over wood fires to form a thick, fudgy paste.
The viscous golden liquid was then poured into huge trays to thicken further and form blocks of what is widely thought to be the world’s healthiest form of sugar — jaggery, also called gur and vellam.
Sweet and sour history
Jaggery has been used in many Indian (and some Asian and African) households for centuries and has been used as a natural sweetener by Ayurveda practitioners for more than 3,000 years.
Legend has it that the physician Sushruta, also known as the “father of Indian surgeons”, in about 700BC combined jaggery with sesame seeds as an antiseptic to treat his patients. Jaggery was rediscovered in the late 1600s in south India by the Portuguese colonisers, and it subsequently spread to other parts of South East Asia, including Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as Africa.
“In India, jaggery is more than just a flavouring, it’s also an object of ritualistic significance, a sign of good tidings and a marker of changing seasons,” says Sneha Mehta, a homemaker from Ahmedabad. “In Gujarati communities, for example, engagements are commonly known as gol dhana to represent the gift of jaggery and coriander seeds that were traditionally distributed to guests.”
Preferences changed after 1857 during British colonial rule in India, which not only destroyed the jaggery industry, but also promoted refined white sugar. However, the ingredient has found favour in recent decades as consumers became ever more health conscious.
At present, India produces more than 70 per cent of the world's jaggery, and more than three million people earn their livelihood from this cottage industry.
Health benefits of jaggery
With its taste of rich caramel and spicy molasses, jaggery, or unrefined cane sugar, can be likened to Latin American panela and Portuguese muscovado.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation has recognised dehydrated sugar cane juice and its products for their non-centrifugated nature, meaning the glucose, fructose and mineral residues present in jaggery have not been destroyed or contaminated by refining.
“Sugar is simply empty calories, while jaggery is rich in a number of essential nutrients, making it a power-packed source of nourishment,” says Kavita Devgan, a nutritionist from Delhi and author of Fix it with Food and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks. “It contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, sodium, zinc, copper, as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, B5, B6, C, D2, and E.
“Magnesium acts as a muscle relaxant, makes the nervous system more robust and helps beat fatigue, while potassium helps in reducing water retention and cut down on bloating.”
Jaggery is an active ingredient in many Ayurvedic medicines. For instance, it is used with ginger and tulsi (holy basil) to treat coughs and colds in the winter. Ayurveda recognises it as a “sattvic” food because of its calming effect on the mind. Jaggery is also rich in iron, can help boost haemoglobin levels and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Anushruti RK, founder of DivineTaste.com, a platform that focuses on sattvic food — the fresh-food-only vegetarian Ayurvedic diet is thought to promote happiness, energy and clarity in addition to calmness — is another proponent of the ingredient. “It is good for bone health, strengthens the lungs and builds immunity,” she says.
“The high iron and folate content means it is excellent for pregnant and lactating mothers, and can also ease menstrual pain and alleviate PMS symptoms.”
Food curator and TV show host Rakesh Raghunathan was familiar with jaggery, which is used in many Indian kitchens, but it was only on a trip to rural Tamil Nadu that he realised its health benefits. “It was peak summer and I remember being given a piece of jaggery and a glass of warm water when I visited the farmers, only to learn that this customary ritual is followed because jaggery is a natural coolant for the body when it is mixed with water,” Raghunathan says.
A jaggery quota is also assigned to workers in many Indian mines, thermal power plants and cement factories so they don’t suffer from diseases such as TB, caused by particulate matter in the lungs, because jaggery works like a natural cleaner.
Usage, types and caveats
It is little wonder, then, that the ingredient is used in Indian, Thai, Burmese and other South Asian cuisines in sweet and savoury dishes. Jaggery can be used to balance spicy, salty and sour components, while its depth of flavour and taste make it favourable to sweeten kheer, halwas, chikki and other Indian sweetmeats.
“I add organic jaggery to my coffee or tea instead of sugar, because I prefer its earthy taste,” says Shilpa Rao, an engineer from Delhi. “I use it in chutneys and sauces to balance the flavours, and to make healthier versions of Indian sweets.”
The ingredient is an important part of harvest rituals in India, especially those that mark a new agricultural year. Some other preparations include: a sweet juice called paanakam, made with water, jaggery and peppercorns; a rice pudding called Pongal, made with lentils, jaggery, rice, ghee, cashew nuts and raisins; and ladoos, made with sesame seeds or peanuts and jaggery.
RK says jaggery can even be consumed by itself. “In the absence of dessert, a few pieces of jaggery is all I need to satisfy my sweet cravings.”
Jaggery can be manufactured from sugar cane juice and palm sap, and each has a distinct taste and flavour. Palm jaggery is considered superior — medicinally and nutritionally. In West Bengal, a treacle-coloured jaggery made from a date palm sap called nolen gur has a smoky taste and is available only in the winter. In Sri Lanka, jaggery is usually made using the syrup of the kithul palm tree or from coconut syrup.
While the ingredient is a healthy sugar — because its preparation does not involve the use of preservatives or synthetic additives — it does have a high glycaemic index. “This is why one should have only up to 15 grams per day, and people who have diabetes should avoid it because, refined or not, it is sugar,” says Dharini Krishnan, a dietitian in Chennai.
Another caveat is that sugar cane production itself might be prone to pesticide and herbicide use, so organic jaggery, which is more gold than brown, is a better bet.