The Sweetness of Jaggery

Sugar must have been produced and consumed in India as early as the Vedic ages (c 800 BC) since  it is mentioned in the literature from that time period1. Western historians mention that sugar was exported from India in the eighth and ninth centuries2. Jaggery, or unrefined sugar derived from sugar cane or palm, is a form in which sugar has been consumed in India, more so during ancient times but also to an extent in contemporary society. Growing-up, I remember parts of the store-room in the house smelling of jaggery. It was a distinct smell, deep and rich, and quite unlike that of refined white sugar. The smell would become stronger on festive occasions when the airtight lid covering the jaggery container was opened and pieces of jaggery were shaved off of a big solid block, to melt in a pan over heat, enroute to sweetening any number of desserts.

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Jaggery

Pachai paruppu payasam, is a jaggery-based dessert that was on the rotation of festive occasion desserts that I grew up with, and here is a method to make it.

Split-green gram (yellow when skinned)

Jaggery

Coconut milk

Water

Clarified butter

Cashewnuts

Raisins

Cardamom pods

Cook the green gram with water in the proportion, one part green gram to 3-4 parts water with a covered lid until the grams are soft but still hold their shape. Mash some of the cooked gram to smooth consistency while leaving others as is to retain some coarse texture. Cook further to reach desired consistency. Shave enough jaggery to add to a pan, and heat under low flame to melt. Pour the melted dark jaggery into the gram mixture until desired sweetness is reached. Add some thick coconut milk, bring to a boil, and take the pan off the heat. In a separate pan, melt a little clarified butter to roast some cashewnuts and raisins and add to the gram mixture to finish the dessert. Garnish with a few broken cardamom pods.

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Pachai paruppu payasam

 

As a child, pachai paruppu payasam was not on my list of favorites, I preferred another kind in the same family of desserts that used milk, rice and refined white sugar. However, I recall how enthusiastic my grandmother’s reactions were to the jaggery and green gram based version. She mentioned that it was a specialty in Kerala, the neighboring state where she grew up. As time has gone by, pachai paruppu payasam has become a favorite. I do not know exactly why, but I wonder today, as my grandmother turns eighty-two.

 

Reference:

1. Indian Food: A Historical Companion by KT Achaya

2. Food: The History of Taste by Paul Freedman

14 thoughts on “The Sweetness of Jaggery

  1. Jeff

    Rice pudding has long been one of my favorites, but this variation with lentils, raisins, and coconut milk sounds very interesting (and delicious). The jaggery is a warm color and you can see and feel the texture in the photo! Wishing a very happy birthday to your grandmother.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you for your wishes, Jeff, I will convey them to my grandmother. Yes, the color of jaggery is warm. I'm also curious of how you think the flavor would interact with the color.

      Reply
  2. José Luiz

    Jaggery is very popular in the culinary of northeastern Brazil. It is called RAPADURA.
    Big hug,
    José Luiz

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Lovely to hear about RAPADURA, José! On a related note, my readings indicate that the word jaggery is an English word derived from the Sanskrit word sharkara, through Portugese.

      Big Hug,
      Bala

      Reply
  3. Sarah

    How lovely to have a young grandmother Bala! Best wishes to her on her birthday. There is no doubt that nostalgia plays strongly in our taste preferences. At least it does for me!
    Now you have me thinking of my own grandmother and wild raspberry freezer jam on toast. Here's to delicious and happy memories!

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you for your kind words, Sarah! I will let my grandmother know.

      I agree that nostalgia influences our taste preferences, sometimes in ways that is hard to predict, it seems.

      Maybe someday you'll tell us more about your grandmother's wild raspberry freezer jam on toast.

      Reply
  4. Millie Roy

    Thanks for posting this, Bala. I came back from India, a month or so ago and this post reminded me of the smell of Palm jaggery that wafted through the homes as the payasams and other delectable sweets were being made. Brought back sweet memories.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you, Mrs. Roy. Sometime, it would be very nice to hear from you about how palm jaggery is used in the sweets of Kolkata.

      Reply
      1. Aruna Vedula

        Love paysam with jaggery. I remember eating it on my visit to Kerala a few years ago. The addition of small pieces of fresh coconut just made it lip smacking good. Thanks for your post.

        Reply
        1. Bala

          Mrs. Vedula,

          I agree that a few pieces of fresh coconut would really elevate this payasam.

          Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

          Reply
  5. SK

    Nammada Nattu Special Payasam anau Ithu...Its very famous in both Kerala & Nagerkoil...Mostly everyone loves it.....including me!!!

    Reply
  6. nirmala

    The rich colour of the jaggery and the display of the payasam brings back memory of how often it was made at home by my mother. she used milk and water in equal proportions to cook the lentils and finished it in addition to cashew nuts and raisins small pieces of coconut roasted in ghee. The fragrance I recollect filled the house. While typically in most households it was made on special occasions and festivals my mother made it more often as we enjoyed having it and it was a nutritious variant to our regular meal.

    She talked about the goodness of jaggery and the natural iron content it had. Thinking back while she was no qualified dietician my mother ensured the family enjoyed a delicious meal that was both balanced and nutritious.

    I also distinctly remember my mother treating us with a piece of jaggery every time we were by her while she opened the jar in which she stored the jaggery.

    Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories that brought joy and smile as I read the post and sat down to respond.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you.

      I have actually tried cooking the gram in thin coconut milk, but I think I can do away with it without much loss of flavor.

      Yes, just like I mentioned to another poster above, I agree that the coconut will add to the flavor of the payasam. As a matter of fact, I remember the payasam at home having some fresh coconut pieces in it.

      Jaggery does have a lot of nutritional value relative to refined white sugar because it is unrefined.

      It was nice to read your story about how your mom gave pieces of jaggery as a treat. I recall picking out pieces from pori, kadalai.

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...