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.
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)
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.
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.
1. Indian Food: A Historical Companion by KT Achaya
2. Food: The History of Taste by Paul Freedman