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Jaggery: Ancient India’s favourite sweetener

By Madhulika Dash 

Think sweetener and the obvious synonym would be not honey, but sugar. In fact, it’s hard to imagine sweetmeats with the all essential white crystal. But there was a time when sugar didn’t exist – and then there was a time when sugar did exist as this crude, brown ball, which was not much of value – till of course the Tudors turned it white, refined and returned back to the state of origin (India) with extra interest charged. 

That’s right. Unlike what is commonly believed, the British, much like the fabled tea, didn’t introduce sugar in India either, it was an indigenous invention around the famous ports and Muziris where after the sap was harvested for jaggery – the main sweetener back in time – and the second press yielded the heady drink, the rest was just crystalised into this brown balls that were sold to the seafarers, travelers and traders to take along the journey. What made them popular, aside their cheap rates (trading at Indian ports back in the early BC till 10th century was an extremely expensive affair, famous scholar Pliny once noted down), were also the fact that this mud-like sweet resin could make even sea water bearable. 

In fact, many ground level hands would take this little menhir style sugar to their homes, break it into small pieces and give it to their kids to enjoy as candy. Back home in India however, it was jaggery made from caramalising the sap that remained the sweetener of choice when fruits couldn’t provide the necessary meethapan. In the rest of the world where sugar hadn’t reached yet, carrot, beetroot and fruits – dehydrated ones in the Persian court at least – was sugar.

Developed around the start of AD, this long presence in the civilization perhaps explains why jaggery and not sugar is a part of all rituals in India – especially those related to the harvest season or marks a new agriculture year. The other reason of course, is the purity. Much like olive oil, jaggery is what is made from the first press of sugarcane and the first sap of palm. In fact, it is this high quality that makes nolen gur such a prime-class ingredient. 

It is another story that for the coastal areas where jaggery production was a major industry – sometimes an entire village would be involved in it – jaggery wasn’t just a sweet ingredient, it was also a key ingredient that helped develop many a recipes. Take the case of the khatta meetha fish that you get through the belt of Odisha, Bihar and Andhra. Or, the pickles and murabbas made. The fact that jaggery travelled with ease and could melt also made it a choice sweetener when it came to creating travel food. One of the classic example is chikki, revri and of course the ladoos. It was the oil of the sweet world! 

Travel food was one of the many routes how jaggery travelled from the coastal areas to other parts of the town, where the same technique was applied to sugarcane. In fact, many anthropologist, are of the opinion that while developing better, faster techniques of producing good quality jaggery that another sweet-making technique was born – pulled sugar. Of course, there is a section that believes that the art developed around emperor Jahangir’s time when the Tudor developed white sugar became acceptable in court. It is said that in spite of a food store that was created every time the Mughal emperor sat to eat, he would insist on having good amounts of sugar which were delivered as blocks to be kept on the table. And during his lunch would happily partake a good amount. And while the royalty was discovering white sugar, jaggery thanks to its wellness properties – it is rich in iron, good for digestion and is a natural body warmer – had become a mainstay at many homes. Even the gurudwaras that make kada prasad using sugar on regular occasion, during winters would make with gur. 

The change of preference for sugar came post 1857. Over the next few years the colonial power not only gradually destroyed the jaggery factory but also promoted sugar. Eager to fit in with the new rulers of the land, the rich and famous took a liking to the white sugar, even as jaggery remained for all ritual practices. That coupled with the forced exports that India as a British colony had to do, and the eventual setting up the industry that made sugar, affordable proved to me the coffin for the ancient sweetener. And by end of the 19th century India began not only producing sugar that looked much better than the mounds, but consuming it too. Sugar led to the refinement of quite a few sweet-making processes and introduced a few new one as well like sugar pulling, which is used in making sonpapdi.

Such was the trickestry that by the time Delhi was established, sugar was irreplaceable. Had it not been for rituals that insisted on using pure, indigenous ingredients, Jaggery continued its presence, albeit the know how did disappear to a stage where working with jaggery seems like a huge trial more and error far more experiment. But thanks to the some good old recipes, rituals and new awareness about food and ingredients in the West, the ancient sweetener seems to be making a good comeback. 

In Picture: Arissa Pitha (Dessert made with jaggery) 

Check out this easy version of Arisa Pitha recipe