Jaggery is considered a sacred food by Indians and many others across the globe. It is sold in different forms – cubes, blocks, sticky lumps, round disk shapes, etc. It’s available in whitish brown, dark brown and blackish brown. In Mangalore, Karnataka round disks known as ‘Volle bela’ is available, packed in dried palm leaves. Kids in jest call it ‘Mangalore Cadbury’ and love to chew it as chocolate.
Jaggery or Gur or Gul as it is colloquially known is made by boiling sugarcane juice. Gur has an important place in Indian cuisine and culture, mainly because it is considered pure, unlike sugar where chemicals and bone charcoal are used in refining it. Jaggery, also called Gur or Gud, is used as an ingredient in both sweet and dishes across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. For example, a pinch of it is sometimes added to sambar, rasam and other staples in India. Jaggery is also added to lentil soups/dal to add sweetness to balance the spicy, salty and sour components, particularly in Gujarati cuisine.
Jaggery is made from both sugarcane and the date palm tree. The sugar made from the sap of the date palm is both more prized and less commonly available outside of the regions where it is made. The coconut palm is also tapped for producing jaggery in West Bengal, South India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, syrup extracts from kithul trees are widely used for jaggery production. This is considered the best quality jaggery available in local market and is given a higher value than jaggery from other sources. All types of the jaggery come in blocks or pastes of solidified concentrated sugar syrup heated to 200°C. Traditionally, the syrup is made by boiling raw sugarcane juice or palm sap in large, shallow, round-bottom vessels.
Hindus, during religious ceremonies offer delicacies such as chakkara pongal, obattu and payasam made of jaggery as Prasad to gods and goddesses. It is considered life-giving and soul- sustaining. In many parts of India, there is a tradition of eating a piece of jaggery before setting out on an important assignment , or on hearing good news or success in a venture, and sharing it with family and friends.
It is also known for its medicinal properties. In traditional home-cure by elderly folks, gur is used in the making of ‘kashai’ or ‘kaada’ to cure sore throat and cough. According to Ayurveda, jaggery is packed with valuable minerals. Being a complex carbohydrate, it is digested and absorbed into the blood gradually. Eating a piece of jaggery after a good meal helps in digestion and prevents acidity. It is believed that jaggery purifies blood, keeps blood pressure under control, prevents and cures pimples and makes skin and hair healthy. Besides providing relief from premenstrual-cramps, jaggery is useful in preventing pregnancy-related anaemia. It also provides relief from migraine, headaches, and acts as an antioxidant and also cleans the respiratory tract of dust and pollutants.
Maharashtra is the largest producer and consumer of jaggery; most vegetable dishes, curries, and dals contain it. In rural Maharashtra and Karnataka, water and a piece of jaggery is given when someone arrives home from working under a hot sun. Kakvi, a byproduct of the production of jaggery, is also used in rural Maharashtra and Karnataka as a sweetener. It contains many minerals not found in ordinary sugar and is considered beneficial to health in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It is used as an ingredient of many sweet delicacies, such as gur ka chawal (jaggery rice), a traditional Rajasthani dish. In Gujarat, laddus are made from wheat flour and jaggery.
In Myanmar, jaggery is harvested from toddy palm syrup. In central Myanmar and around Bagan (Pagan), toddy syrup is collected solely for the purpose of making jaggery. The translucent white syrup is boiled until it becomes golden brown, and then made into bite-sized pieces. It is considered a sweet and is eaten by children and adults alike, usually in the afternoon along with a pot of green tea. It has been referred to locally as Burmese chocolate. Toddy palm jaggery is also sometimes mixed with coconut shreds, jujube puree or sesame, depending on the area. This type of jaggery is also used in Burmese cooking, usually to add color and enrich the food.
The Muzaffarnagar District in Uttar Pradesh has the largest jaggery market in the world, followed by Anakapalli in the Visakhapatnam District in Andhra Pradesh. The Kolhapur District in western Maharashtra is also famous for its variety of jaggery, which is yellow and much sought-after in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Mandya in Karnataka is also known for its jaggery production.