From traditional winter treats to summer drinks - jaggery finds its place in a wide array of Indian recipes. This unadulterated sweetener comes with its own set of health and wellness benefits too
Come winter and gur or jaggery comes into focus in Indian kitchens, finding its way into numerous recipes. Be it gur ki roti (jaggery-filled flatbread), gur ka halwa (semolina dessert cooked with jaggery), khatti meethi phaliyan (a Gujarati specialty of stir fried beans tossed in tamarind, spicy coconut shavings and jaggery) or patishapta (a Bengali delicacy where thin crepes are stuffed with coconut and jaggery filling), jaggery-based delicacies become common in Indian households. High in iron and vitamin C, jaggery is not only a healthier alternative to refined sugar but is also used in traditional home remedies for common ailments.Derived from the same source but vastly different in look and taste – both refined sugar and jaggery belong to the sugarcane family but while the former gets a glorified appearance, the latter is considered to be its unassuming cousin. According to an article published in the October 2020 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association, added sugar is one of the major reasons for obesity and related health disorders as it contains empty calories (ones devoid of vitamins or minerals) and plain sucrose.
“Jaggery is packed with minerals and vitamins, and also contains iron, magnesium and potassium. The easiest remedy for stomach disorders, constipation and cough, this unrefined sugar helps relieve gullet and lung contagions too,” says Pranati Bollapragada, head of nutrition and dietetics at Dharana at Shillim, a wellness retreat in Pune.
Jaggery has been traditionally used in the treatment of cold and flu-like symptoms since ages, and consuming it during colder months helps in generating heat in the body. Jaggery contains approximately four calories per gm. And burning calories from food produces heat, which dilates the blood vessels and provides warmth to the body. A reason why jaggery becomes a quintessential kitchen ingredient during winter.According to a study published in the International Journal of Current Research in 2018, jaggery works wonders for overall well-being too. It not only aids in the secretion of endorphins or happy hormones but is also effective in providing relief from abdominal spasms. When taken in moderation on a regular basis, jaggery also acts as a natural blood purifier and helps cleanse the liver by flushing out harmful toxins from the body.Jaggery is loaded with antioxidants and such minerals as zinc and selenium, which boost resistance against infections. It also helps increase the blood’s hemoglobin count. Iron and folate present in jaggery ensure that the normal level of red blood cells is maintained in the body, thereby preventing anaemia.A rich source of potassium – a mineral that maintains electrolyte balance in the body, helps build muscles and boost metabolism – jaggery is favoured by fitness enthusiasts and those aiming to lose weight. Being a complex carbohydrate, jaggery keeps the body active for a longer period of time as compared to refined sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate and is absorbed immediately by the blood.But just like any good thing, it should be consumed in moderation.
Making of jaggery
Sugarcane is a major source for jaggery, which can also be derived from date palm sap (called nolen gur in liquid form and patali gur in solid form) and coconut sap as well. The non-industrial, natural method consists of the sap or juice being collected, boiled and cooled. The quality, however, depends on factors like the variety of sugarcane, the cultivation standards followed, the composts used, the stage of fruitage and the process of sap removal, among others. The traditional and organic method is as meticulous as it is sustainable – sugarcane juice is extracted, poured into a large metal vessel and boiled while stirring continuously to avoid lump formation. The liquid is stirred till it forms a thick powdery element. The end product is brown in colour, less salty and an ideal substitute for sugar.
Know your varieties
Sugarcane jaggery is the most commonly consumed. The smooth-textured palm variety is sweeter and more nutritious as it is loaded with nutrients and fibre that not only stimulates digestion but also helps in providing relief to migraines and headaches. But the sweetest of all is the one with a crystallised texture made from unprocessed and fresh extracts of coconut sap. This sugar substitute is used in many traditional recipes of South India. “Jaggery is also consumed as a summer cooler. The palm sap is known for its cooling effects,” informs Dinesh Mhatre, executive chef, Hilton Mumbai International Airport. Take the panakam for example. Called panaka in Kannada, it is a digestive beverage prepared with jaggery and ginger and is had as a refreshment. Sweet treats like payasam (rice pudding), nei appam (a South Indian delicacy made with rice flour, jaggery and clarified butter), suhiyan (a popular evening snack in South India cooked with green gram, flour and jaggery) and modak (also called ukdiche modak, it is a Maharashtrian rice flour dumpling stuffed with coconut and jaggery) are prepared with different varieties of jaggery and savoured across India.
With an increasing number of chefs across the country turning to seasonal produce for recipes, jaggery has found a new expression. Take for example Kolkata-based chef Joymalya Banerjee’s contemporary nolen gurer madeleines (bite-sized sponge cakes coated with jaggery) and his prawn and crab meat dumplings that are stewed in spicy nolen gur reduction. New Delhi-based chef, Sabyasachi Gorai points out, “I have done away with refined sugar in my kitchen. Jaggery is my go-to sweetener for most of my recipes as it adds both flavour and nutrition to my dish.” Jaggery is more than just a natural sweetener. It is a superfood in the true sense. Be it adding flavour to sweets, promoting wellness or treating ailments – its uses and benefits are unmatched. Snehal More, dietician at Mumbai’s Bhatia Hospital, adds, “It protects vital body organs by insulating them and maintains warmth of the body. Date palm jaggery triggers digestive enzymes and improves gut health.” As the country recuperates from the Covid-19 pandemic, this superfood can serve as a godsend in the winter months.