If anything can save your lungs, it’s jaggery." This is the popular tip doing the rounds in response to the alarming levels of pollution in parts of northern India. While that may be stretching the truth, the onset of winter has, for centuries, signalled the rise of jaggery in our diet. In modern times, shiny crystals of sugar have managed to all but knock jaggery off the table, though the last few years have seen a rediscovery, especially in circles that are keen to ditch overly processed sweeteners and relive the deep, complex notes of the purer jaggery.

Last winter, while on a short weekend trip to a small fort on the fringes of Uttar Pradesh, I took a bullock-cart ride to a jaggery processing unit close by. As a fervent fan, I was entranced watching the process from start to finish: thick bunches of sugar cane dramatically pulped to juice, boiled, cleaned and stirred with giant ladles to form a thick paste engulfed in intense clouds of smoke, poured into steel trays to thicken and form blocks of golden brown jaggery. The owner of a similar jaggery-making unit, Delhi-based entrepreneur Shilpa Rathi Maheshwari, says: “It’s a labour-intensive process and a six-month business. With the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana, the people of Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) are choked with pollution, and jaggery will help." Her biggest customers are doctors who believe in jaggery’s miracle-food properties.

These days, it is fairly common to hear jaggery being talked up in other circles too. Its seductive nutrition profile appears almost irresistible—an antioxidant, iron-rich product with traces of fibre, minerals and vitamins, bolstered by the reputation of having served generations against bouts of cough and cold through winter. Though the sourcing of clean, chemical-free jaggery as a kitchen staple has been a concern, I see jaggery around me nearly everywhere—in trendily packaged pickles and jam, ready-to-eat organic snacks, a crowd favourite at farmers’ markets, in inventive desserts at chic restaurants, in cookies , granola bars, cakes and bread. From traditional processing units in the interiors of India to be shipped en masse to kirana (neighbourhood) stores in our cities, jaggery’s journey to sophisticated urban quarters has been interesting.

Jaggery cubes. Photo: Alamy
Jaggery cubes. Photo: Alamy

Gur has, for centuries, been made from both sugar cane and the sap of four kinds of palm: palmyra, data, coconut and sago. Once a go-to sweetener in traditional Indian sweets, it is said to have been sidelined to benefit capitalist gains from the rise of sugar mills. Of late, white sugar has acquired a villainous image, and a search has begun for other natural alternatives.

It was sometime in 2014 that Manas Arvind, who runs the organic food label Grainny’s out of Gurugram, adjacent to Delhi, switched from using honey and brown sugar to jaggery. “We were moving towards using unprocessed ingredients in our cookies and energy bars, so jaggery became the natural choice for products like ragi (finger millet) cookies, sorghum cookies, banana biscotti. At home, moving away from refined sugar means that apart from jaggery, we also tap into the sweetness of fresh fruits, dry fruits such as raisins, dried apples, apricots, dates, palm sugar and coconut sugar."

It is tough to find the right kind of jaggery, admits Arvind, because even if it is made with organic sugar cane, manufacturers often use chemicals to clean it. “We found a farmer in Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh, who uses the traditional slow process, by constantly skimming the dirt off the top to clean. One also learns to tell if the jaggery has been treated with chemicals, as it is likely to be slight salty."

But when one does find the right variety of jaggery, the beauty is in the right pairing. “I love to pair ginger and coconut with jaggery in cakes, make brownies with jaggery, and use some in granola too. Chocolate works well with jaggery as well. But while replacing sugar with jaggery, it’s not a cup-for-cup measurement," says Delhi-based baker Ruchira Hoon Philip, who has just set up Piano Man Bakery and bakes cakes with jaggery (and other sugar alternatives) on order. “One cup of sugar would be about 1.5 cups of melted jaggery," she points out helpfully.

For many, using jaggery in their food is an ode to the past, to simpler, more earthy times when what we ate changed organically with the season. Date-palm jaggery always reminds me of my mother’s stellar payesh (rice pudding), which was incomplete without the deep, dark sweetener, and the nolen gur sandesh we ate boxfuls of every winter. I know I’m not alone in my nostalgia.

“We don’t serve white sugar on the table at our restaurant. With tea or coffee, guests are served powdered jaggery. I use jaggery wherever I can—nolen gur syrup goes very well with date pudding, in tamarind chutney, poured over cake and pancakes. I don’t use jaggery in my kitchen as a fad, but because it has been such a huge part of my childhood, particularly in my grandmother’s house in Asansol, where the reddish-brown tinge was present in all kinds of sweets," says chef Sabyasachi Gorai, whose dessert menu at the swish Armenian diner Lavaash by Saby in Mehrauli, Delhi, is headlined by Orange Pound Cake served with Palm Jaggery Syrup and Nolen Gur Ice Cream.

At Toast & Tonic restaurants in Bengaluru and Mumbai, Expression Of Jaggery is equally irresistible for a jaggery junkie—think banana sponge cake, jaggery cardamom honeycomb, jaggery caramel and coffee cardamom ice cream, essentially a jaggery pot du crème that fuses nolen gur native to Kolkata, with flavours from the south like coffee and cardamom.

Satisfying to the taste buds, yes, but is jaggery as “healthy" as it is made out to be? “Jaggery, if consumed in small quantities, has health benefits, as it is gluten free and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms). It’s also a digestive aide, boosts metabolism, prevents water retention, eases menstrual pain, prevents anaemia and respiratory issues and helps alleviate joint pains. But jaggery is not a significant source of micronutrients, and both sugar and jaggery provide four calories per gram or 16 calories per teaspoon, so moderation is key," offers Mumbai-based nutritionist Kashish Alimchandani.

To gain a little historical perspective, I turned to Colleen Taylor Sen, author of the recent Feasts And Fasts: A History Of Food In India. “Early Sanskrit literature, starting with the Vedas, has many references to ikshu (sugar cane) and Kautilya in his Arthashastra (around 300 BC) notes a wide range of sugar-cane products, including gur, phanita (thickened juice, now called rab), khand (sugar crystals), matsyandika (larger or whiter sugar crystals) and sharkara. In traditional Ayurveda, jaggery is considered beneficial in treating throat and lung infections," she says, noting that jaggery is obviously leagues ahead of sugar, given a complexity which is at times described as “warm and smoky". More than flavour, there are also arguments that choosing jaggery and more earthy alternatives over sugar is the ethical choice. “The modern sugar industry is environmentally harmful, has serious implications for public health and is, most importantly, economically unjust and exploitative of India’s farmers and the rural economy," says Bengaluru-based Venu Madhav Govindu, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). He stresses that Gandhians such as J.C. Kumarappa had argued in the 1930s and 1940s that India should develop methods of utilizing palms as a source of sugar instead of cane.

So jaggery is perhaps the ethically right choice. Can the current jaggery fad that caters to a certain section of the health- and flavour-conscious set become something bigger after all?

The other sugars

Apart from jaggery, there is a fair variety of natural alternatives to refined sugar in the market. “However natural, it is best to consume any form of sugar sparingly," says celebrity nutritionist Kashish Alimchandani. Here are some of the sugars available in India:

Date sugar and coconut palm sugar

Date sugar is what you get when you grind dehydrated dates in the food processor. It’s not easy to find it in the market but it’s absolutely possible to make at home. Date syrup is easier to find. Coconut palm sugar, meanwhile, is readily available everywhere: Pure and Sure, Sprig, Naturally Yours, Urban Platter are some of the popular brands selling organic coconut sugar online and offline. Both these natural sugars have far deeper, more distinct notes, with a teasing caramel flavour in their liquid form, and both have a lower glycemic index (which means they are absorbed in the body at a slower pace, better for blood sugar levels) than regular sugar, though they have about the same number of calories. Both are great in cakes.

Blackstrap molasses

A by-product in the refining process of sugar cane, blackstrap molasses emerge when cane syrup boils a third time, as a dark viscous liquid. It traps nutritional value, and has the advantage of having low sugar content. High in iron, it is a relatively expensive purchase. It works beautifully in baked goodies, such as cookies and breads and BBQ sauces, adding a rich colour. Plantation Organic Molasses, Elixir, Melrose Organic Unsulphured Blackstrap Molasses are some of the options available in India.

Maple syrup

A sure-shot hit on pancakes and waffles, this one is a winner all the way. With a lower calorie count than honey, maple syrup is a flavourful, if expensive alternative that pairs with a wide variety of food, both savoury and sweet. Made from the sugary sap of maple trees, the silky golden syrup is said to be good for the heart, reproductive and immune systems. The zinc content in pure maple syrup is said to improve metabolism and tissue formation. Its growing popularity means a fair variety of this Canadian treat is available here: Try Bernard Organic Maple Syrup, Aunt Jemima Original Lite, Maple Joe Canadian Maple Syrup, Epicure Real Canadian Maple Syrup.

Agave

Sweeter than honey, with a high-calorie profile, is agave, which is extracted from the agave plant and retains some of its mineral content in its darker syrup form. So, it’s not a great option for those looking for a low-calorie sweetener, but it is considered healthier and goes well in oatmeal, cookies, smoothies. Clarks Organic Agave Syrup, Urban Platter Blue Agave Nectar, Now Foods Organic Light Amber Agave Nectar are some of the brands you may come across at gourmet stores.

Stevia, Erythritol, Xylitol

Those on a ketogenic or similar diets can look towards “zero calorie" sugar alcohols erythritol (manufactured from corn starch) and xylitol (extracted from corn cobs, sugar-cane stalk residue) and the plant-based stevia. All three water-soluble natural sweeteners can be used in hot and cold beverages, for cooking and baking, for a sugar-free sweet high. Stable at high temperatures, they are easy to digest.

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