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Treat jaggery as a sweetener, not superfood

Replacing sugar with jaggery in a dish doesn't make it a 'healthy recipe'. Use it mindfully, and relish its sweetness

Jaggery dosa (left) and jaggery-coated almonds. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)
Jaggery dosa (left) and jaggery-coated almonds. (Photos: Nandita Iyer)

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My great grandparents’ home in King’s Circle, Mumbai had two rooms and a balcony. The living room or ‘hall’ as it was called with two doors opening into the kitchen which was nearly as big as the hall. The kitchen had one mesh lined cupboard which functioned as a pantry and the walls were lined with a long wooden shelf that had all the metal dabbas that stored interesting stuff. Come 2 pm, and my great grandfather would wake up from his afternoon siesta on his chair and go into the kitchen, reach out to this shelf to fix his pre-tea time snack for his sweet tooth. He would take handful of raw peanuts and some crushed jaggery from the kitchen dabbas in a small bowl and savour them while (re)reading the day’s newspaper. On the days I stayed with them, I also got my share of this snack. We would eat this together sitting in the balcony, our peanut-chomping sounds punctuating the still afternoons.

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I wait for the day when jaggery varieties in India will be as prized as olive oils and balsamic vinegar from Italy and wines from France. Jaggery tasting sessions and jaggery tourism, anybody?

Some of the jaggery varieties found in India are made from sugarcane, coconut, date palm, palmyra and toddy palm. Dark brown Marayoor jaggery from Kerala’s Idukki district is famous for its sweetness and organic method of production. Jaggery from Maharashtra’s Kolhapur is known for its light colour and intense sweetness.

Maria Jenita’s Instagram post on the organic way of producing jaggery from sugarcane came as an eye-opener. Jenita is a PhD, research associate and teaching fellow at the Centre for Food Technology at Anna University, Chennai, and the founder of Goodness Farm. “The making of organic jaggery is a beautifully choreographed process that employs tremendous skill and dexterity,” Jenita writes in her post.

The process, as she explains it, is a fascinating one. The makeshift processing unit is set up on the farm where the sugarcane is harvested. The cane is crushed to extract juice. Around 500 litres of juice is brought to boil in a large pan set over a massive furnace dug in the ground. The furnace is fuelled by dried sugarcane bagasse. Okra mucilage is added to the juice to clarify impurities, which are skimmed off to be used as manure. The juice is stirred continuously for around two hours to get thick molasses.

This is poured into another dry pan, with more hours of synchronised manual labour to turn it into a powder. The process doesn’t generate any waste.

A consciously made jaggery is worth its weight in gold. Goodness Farm makes organic cane and palm jaggery; it’s sold in mould, powder and syrup form on their website.

While I don’t believe that a calorie is a calorie, a sugar is definitely a sugar. If it increases blood sugar levels sharply, and, therefore, insulin secretion, it has to be had with caution, be it sugar or jaggery. Just replacing sugar with jaggery in any Indian dessert does not make it a “healthy recipe”, as the millions of recipes floating on the internet seem to suggest.

Almost all the web content on jaggery claims that it is a “superfood”, “powerhouse of nutrients”, “detoxifies the liver”, “boosts immunity”, “an excellent source of iron”—all of which is terribly misleading information. Take, for example, iron: 100g of jaggery provides around 60% of the daily required iron intake but I would worry for you if you were eating 100g of jaggery a day. Bring it down to the more practical portion size of one teaspoon and jaggery provides just a tiny fraction of the daily requirement. Replacing sugar with jaggery provides marginally more micronutrients, since sugar is just empty calories.

On to the detoxification. The liver is the most complex detoxifying unit in the universe, handling all the toxins thrown at it using its own complex biochemical processes. It does not need jaggery to fuel this.

Eat jaggery-based foods mindfully, for the complex flavour and earthy sweetness it adds to our everyday life, rather than looking on it as a superfood or miracle food. Maybe then we will consume it in moderation and relish each morsel of a jaggery-sweetened dish for what it is—a sweetener.

Childhood favourite Vella Dosai
(Jaggery dosa) Makes 6-8

Up to three-quarters of a cup of crushed jaggery
1 cup wheat flour
Quarter tsp green cardamom powder
Ghee to cook dosas

In a pan, combine the jaggery with half a cup of water. Bring this to a boil and then simmer for one-two minutes until the jaggery dissolves completely. Let this mixture cool for 15-20 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour and cardamom powder with the cooled jaggery liquid. Add water and whisk to get a thick dosa batter consistency. Cover and let this rest for 30 minutes.

Heat a cast iron pan and grease with a few drops of ghee. On a moderately hot pan, pour a ladle of the batter and spread it out into a circle, taking care not to make it too thin. These dosas are thicker than the regular dosas.

Spoon some ghee around the sides of the dosa and cook it on a low-medium flame for a minute or so until it is golden brown. Flip over and cook for another 30 seconds. Serve hot with some ghee drizzled over it.

To make this dish more festive, try a happy fusion of the Tamil vella dosai with the Bengali patishapta. Reduce the quantity of jaggery in the batter by half. Prepare a filling of grated coconut, khoya, jaggery and green cardamom powder by stirring over a low flame until fudgy.

Make small dosas, place the filling in the centre and roll the dosas.

Jaggery-coated roasted almonds
Makes 2 cups

1 cup almonds
Less than a cup of crushed jaggery
A pinch of salt
Half tsp crushed black pepper (or fennel powder)

Toast the almonds in the microwave (three minutes) or in a heavy pan (seven-eight minutes), until they are aromatic. Remove to a dish and let it cool. Line a baking tray with a silicon sheet and keep ready.

Add the jaggery to a heavy-bottomed pan along with a splash of water (2-3 tbsp). The jaggery will melt and come to a boil. Lower the flame and let it simmer for three-four minutes until the top gets frothy. Add the toasted almonds and toss well to coat. Transfer immediately to the baking tray. Sprinkle salt and black pepper on the almonds.

Store in an airtight jar once cooled. A couple of these make a wholesome post-dinner sweet treat.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life. @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.

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