Towards the start of November, when the morning dew settles on the grass, and there is a mild nip in the air, Sheikh Hasan knows it is time to leave. He, along with his uncle Sheikh Mujibur pack their bags and journey from Murshidabad district in West Bengal into the hinterland in search of date palm trees. Their aim: strike a deal with landowners to be able to collect its sap at the height of winter. They live in makeshift huts for the next three to four months, and earn their livelihood by tapping the inflorescence of the tree and processing the sap to prepare Bengal’s most-prized seasonal produce: nolen gur or date palm jaggery.
A woody, caramel flavour is what distinguishes nolen gur, also known as notun gur or new jaggery, from the rest. It is available in two forms—solid or patali gur and liquid or jhola gur. Both are equally revered, and used to make sweets such as sandesh, payesh and pithe during the winter months. Sweet shops across Bengal see brisk business owing to the seasonal demand, innovating with fusion renditions to keep up with the times. At home, women find comfort in traditional recipes.
While patali gur is most preferred due to its longer shelf life, the liquid counterpart needs to be refrigerated as it can get moldy. In the absurdist world of Sukumar Ray, an icon of Bengali children’s literature, jhola gur enjoys cult status. This oft-quoted line from his poem celebrates the finer things in life—‘kintu shobar chaite bhalo, pauruti aar jhola gur’, which translates to ‘but the best of everything is bread and runny jaggery’. Quite indeed, every Bengali has a soft corner for jhola gur, like it is some elixir of life. It is not cloyingly sweet, and can be drizzled on warm buttery toasts, eaten with fluffy luchis or fried flatbreads, hot rotis and even used as a sweetener in cereal on cold wintry mornings. The huge demand has prompted enterprising businesses such as Bonghaat, an online store of Bengali handicrafts and food items, to retail it in food grade bottles.
The science of jhola gur
The date palm sap is weather sensitive, and extracting it is most favourable when the mercury dips. The colder the night, the sweeter the sap. Every day around sunset, Hasan and Mujibur cut the end of the inflorescence or flower cluster, and hang an earthen pot to collect khejurer rosh or date palm sap. At dawn, the pots are brought down, and the sap is quickly transferred lest it ferments, to huge trays set on wood fire made with dried leaves from the same trees. It is then constantly stirred until the translucent sap acquires the hue of the earth. Hasan tells me over the phone that he climbs the trees as early as 3am, and by 7am, golden treacle-like warm molasses or jhola gur is ready to be poured into earthen pots. The rest is further reduced and then transferred into disc-like moulds and left to solidify. This forms patali gur.
Perhaps the most ingenious creation using jhola gur is gurer jolbhora shondesh. Jolbhora translates to ‘filled with water’, and reflects the exquisite craftsmanship of Bengal’s gifted moira or sweet maker. The original jolbhora was conceptualised by Surjya Kumar Modak in 1818.
He filled a regular cottage cheese or chana shondesh with a ‘surprise’ rose syrup in the centre to meet the request of a local zamindar (land owner) in Chandannagar. His great grandson Saibal Kumar Modak suggests that rose syrup was replaced by jhola gur only recently, in the last 25 years owing to its seasonal obsession. Modak has clientele across the country, and regularly couriers jolbhora packages to Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Jhola gur is also used to prepare Joynagarer moa, a winter sweetmeat from the town of Joynagar in South 24 Parganas. It acquired a GI tag in 2015, and is made by combining khoi, a form of popped rice with liquid jaggery, ghee, cardamom, poppy seed, nuts and raisins and shaping into balls.
The jhola gur makeover
In 2008, when Anuvrat Pabrai’s ice-cream company was in deep crisis, he decided to rebrand it. The first-generation Punjabi entrepreneur from Kolkata launched Pabrai's Fresh and Naturelle Ice Cream to put a spotlight on natural fruit ice-creams. Their signature, and best-selling flavour is the nolen gur ice-cream prepared with jhola gur, and served with a drizzle of the same. “I wanted to create a flavour that was quintessentially Bengali, and that’s how the variant was born,” says Pabrai, who sampled the sweets made with nolen gur at every landmark sweet shop in Kolkata as part of his research.
The ice-cream was a sensation, and saw him supplying it to premium restaurants and hotels such as Oh! Calcutta, Bhojohori Manna, 6 Ballygunge Place, Taj Bengal and The Peerless Inn to name a few. As someone who calls himself a revivalist, Pabrai fears adulteration of date palm jaggery poses grave threat in the future. After setting up a chain of outlets in major metros, he now follows strict protocol in vetting the produce, which includes working with local tappers to examine its viscosity, sugar content and colour. The pandemic may have affected the business, but not deterred his spirit. Pabrai wants to retail jhola gur as a standalone product with an intention to assist the farmers of the region.
In Kolkata, Prachi Saraogi and Tudu Sailen started retailing jhola gur last month, by bottling it in glass jars under the brand Kwidi. The duo source it from the santhal forests in Bankura, about 200 kms from Kolkata. “We want to make indigenous and seasonal products like jhola gur mainstream,” says Saraogi. The venture plans to work with health coaches to promote the nutritional goodness of the product, and how it is a great replacement for refined sugar. She says, “We are equally excited to connect with chefs who are able to celebrate these local ingredients, and in turn spread awareness about our diverse heritage."
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.