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A dash of nolen gur in gourmet desserts

Bengal’s winter speciality may be winning over chefs and diners around the world but it’s facing existential threats at home

Nolen gur souffle at Masque
Nolen gur souffle at Masque

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It’s not every day that Sujan Sarkar comes up with a dessert using celeriac. When he does, the US-based chef gives the knobbly root vegetable a whole new identity. He pairs it with nolen gur in a classic French tarte tatin.

Having grown up in a small town in Bengal’s Nadia district, Sarkar derives inspiration from flavour memory. The sap collected from the date palm tree used to taste heavenly on cold winter mornings, he says. Celeriac tarte tatin is one of the most sensational winter desserts at his upscale, Indian-inspired restaurant, ROOH, in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Nolen gur, or date palm jaggery, has gone beyond the Bengali moira, or confectioner, and managed to woo the experimental chef in India and abroad. Over the last couple of years, the artisanal jaggery, processed in Bengal’s hinterland in peak winter, has received newfound status in the form of granola, cheesecakes, souffles, tarts and cannoli, and even the timeless Old Fashioned. The possibilities are endless, believe most chefs, who wish to go all out to make this very local ingredient shine in the urban foodscape.

But while the seasonal nolen gur, rooted in its terroir, is winning over diners around the world, at home it is fighting an existential battle on multiple fronts: temperamental weather, labour and adulteration issues.

Nolen gur is indigenous to Bengal, where the date palm tree, Phoenix sylvestris, grows in the wild. Between November and February, when the temperature drops, it produces the sweetest sap, ideal for jaggery. The process, which involves reducing the sap over wood fire for several hours, yields three distinct forms of gur—liquid, grainy and solid. This prized ingredient with a delicious woody caramel flavour is used to prepare a selection of traditional sweets, like payesh, pithe, sondesh and roshogolla, through the winter months.

In San Francisco, the earthy notes of nolen gur tie Sarkar’s warm tarte tatin together. Celeriac, a turnip-like vegetable, is first poached with nolen gur and then assembled with its caramelised form, with flaky puff pastry on top. A salted jaggery ice cream finished with dehydrated pineapple adds a new dimension without making it cloyingly sweet.

Celeriac tarte tatin with nolen gur at ROOH in San Francisco. 
Celeriac tarte tatin with nolen gur at ROOH in San Francisco. 

“It reminds me of a pineapple upside down cake with those dark, sticky caramelised bits,” says Sarkar over the phone from New York, where he also helms the modern Indian gastrobar Baar Baar and serves a house-churned nolen gur ice cream as part of its winter menu.

In Mumbai, chef Prateek Sadhu has been experimenting with nolen gur for the past couple of years at his award-winning restaurant, Masque. For his winter menu in 2021, he created a til gur ice cream served with a brown butter crumb and til gur chikki with nolen gur as the highlight.

For one month, recipe trials have been on at the Masque lab for a dish that would be part of the new tasting menu, to be announced soon on Instagram. The delay is primarily because of dining restrictions triggered by the spread of coronavirus’ Omicron variant, says Sadhu. This time, his ingredient-first philosophy will focus on a nolen gur souffle that “will be served fresh and scooped in front of the guest, followed by pouring the gur over it. It will be paired with a gondhoraj lebu ice cream,” explains the chef.

If that was not enough, imagine a bonbon with an oozy jaggery centre spilling when you take a bite. Chef Auroni Mookerjee always wanted to play with chocolate and nolen gur but pastry was never his strength, he says. After several trials, his team at Sienna Store & Cafe in Kolkata aced a jolbhora-style bonbon around Christmas; it continued to be on offer until Valentine’s week. The inspiration was the 200-year-old iconic sondesh of the same name that is filled with runny jhola gur.

“The challenge was to contain the liquid jaggery inside the thin shell of chocolate. We also had to remind ourselves that we were working with single-origin bitter chocolate that had its own sugar content,” explains Mookerjee.

Jolbhora-style bonbons at Sienna Store & Cafe
Jolbhora-style bonbons at Sienna Store & Cafe

This season, the chefs at The Salt House in Kolkata came up with a nolen gur, ricotta and coconut cannoli that imitated the Bengali patishapta, a crepe-like sweet made during Poush Sankranti. Amardeep Sinha, the head bar consultant, also talks about a nolen gur Old Fashioned and a mulled wine that he positions as “low hangover cocktails” owing to the absence of refined sugar. The nolen gur specialities are available for a few days more.

The road ahead

The time for extracting the date palm sap is most favourable when the mercury dips to at least 14 degrees Celsius. The colder the night, the sweeter the sap. Over the last few years, though, an increase in western disturbances in Gangetic West Bengal has led to abnormal rainfall in winter, says G.K. Das, scientist-director at the Regional Meteorological Centre in Kolkata. This unseasonal rain and cloud cover is affecting the volume and quality of the sap. Not to mention the trees that are destroyed by cyclones, which have become more frequent in recent years.

Arun Mondal, vice-president at the Joynagar Moa Nirmankari Society in South 24 Parganas, noticed a 10-15% decline in yield this season compared to last year. As part of the non-profit, he has been working with sweetmakers and shiulis, or toddy tappers, in the region for almost two decades.

Then, there are labour issues. The process of tapping the tree is a practice passed down generations. However, the younger generation of shiulis is switching to more lucrative occupations. “From climbing the tree to making an incision to collect the sap, the task requires physical labour. It is like an art, which takes several years to master,” says Sujoy Chatterjee, founder-director of Amar Khamar, a social enterprise that offers small-scale farmers market access through an online platform.

Adulteration has become more common too, fuelling nightmarish scenarios. The first extract that is collected at the onset of the season is considered to be of superior quality—the jaggery processed from this sap ordinarily fetches 600 a kilogram in the retail market. “By adding sugar,” says Mondal, “the price comes down to 150-200, which makes it affordable for the masses.”

At a time when the demand for sustainable food practices is changing how we eat, the food industry can make a difference by building awareness of the issues. “The season is definitely getting shorter. And like many other ingredients, ilish for instance, it is important to respect its seasonality and consume in small quantities,” says Mookerjee. “I don’t have a solution yet,” notes Sadhu. “But as a chef I have the platform to create the right kind of conversation.”

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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