“Life without sweets is not sweet," says author and professor Madhavi Menon as she introduces me to the many delicacies of her brain child, Jaggery Desserts—a Delhi-based home kitchen service that she started with partner and colleague, Jonathan Gil Harris in 2021.
It is early evening in their sunlit living room and I can't help but gape at the desserts before me. An assortment of lemon squares, pecan fudge brownies, raspberry linzers and wicked bars. I am tempted to try but am hesitant.
The desserts are gluten-free, some are lactose-free, a couple of vegan options and all refined sugar-free. They seem to tick all the right boxes for healthy eating, and makes me wonder, ‘Does it taste any good?’ Looking at them, I am reminded of what Màrquez describes as “the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians” in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As I nibble on my first lemon square, a tangy mix of lemon curd atop a firm and dense base of almond flour, I am relieved. It's delicious. The flavours melt in my mouth and I don't need to recall its health benefits to continue eating.
In the last one year since they started Jaggery Desserts, both Gil Harris and Menon have met with a similar mix of respite and joy among their buyers, “Customers order thinking, 'well, I should do this, because it's the right thing. Like I've got to go to the dentist once a year, because it's good for me, I may as well order healthy desserts, because it's good for me.' And then, once they open the box and eat the desserts, much to their pleasure, they find it's really tasty,” says Gil Harris.
Health issues and dietary restrictions led professor Menon to create these desserts from scratch. “I had to get off sugar and gluten. When I did, my brain fog had disappeared and my energy levels were back. So I knew that those two things I will never return to. But the next logical question for me was, how do I feed my cravings? I'm very invested in the pleasures of food,” she shares.
The talents of her cook, Bishu, the potentials of their key ingredient, jaggery and an emphatic love for sweets came to her rescue. In her intense research, Menon discovered a host of recipes, culinary practices and traditional Indian dishes that preserved taste and health in equal measure. It didn't take long for her partner to get on board and channel the trader instincts of his silk route merchant ancestors to turn these desserts into a business.
“The idea was to produce not just a product, but also a measure of consciousness without being too smug about it. It is a measure of consciousness about another way of being in the world, that does not cut out the pleasure of a really tasty dessert,” Gil Harris says describing the thought behind their desserts. “Just because it's healthy doesn't mean it shouldn't make you moan with ecstasy when you eat it,” he adds.
Jaggery Desserts is young and is still rooted in the early phase of experimentation. Be it dishes like Gajar ki Kheer, khubani ka linzer and watalappan, they continue to experiment with something traditional and reimagine it as contemporary looking desserts. They are still building their niche client roaster of stand-alone customers, runners and working on menus for weddings. It's all still evolving.
“For me, the crowning pinnacle of my brief career as a dessert provider has been becoming a shaadi halwai. ” laughs Gil Harris as he talks about the wedding that featured assorted items from Jaggery Desserts along with the invitation. “It was a real pleasure, partly because it just seems, as Madhavi said, so wonderfully perverse that two English professors ended up being the people rushing to reach the wedding because they provided the desserts,” he says.
With their day jobs and numbered staff, Jaggery Desserts remains an all-hands-on-deck business for the duo. But an incumbent loyalty to taste drives their efforts. Talking about the deliveries, home kitchen preparation and the challenges of running a small business, Gil Harris adds, “That's something that people often forget about food in an age of online ordering or going to restaurants where the food is always given to you by a relative stranger, that food culture always involved exchanging recipes and stories. I feel that's what Jaggery has been about. Yes, we are a business that is selling a product, but we're also people interested in food. We're plugging into conversations, not just with our friends, but in various parts of India, with people who are delighted to exchange recipes or stories about good food experiences they've had.”
Madhavi Menon and Jonathan Gil Harris are both Professors of English at Ashoka University and run their home bakery, Jaggery Desserts