Last December, I found myself attending my first Indian wedding in, well, India, and reuniting with a former flatmate and dear friend of mine, Miss P. I also found myself getting my first taste of jaggery. First hearing of the name, first taste of this deliciousness and first feel of this magic. I knew I needed to know more.
"What is this magic??" I asked. "You don't know jaggery??" exclaimed Miss P. "Everyone in India uses it!"
So what exactly is jaggery?
Jaggery is an unrefined sugar obtained from raw, concentrated sugarcane juice. Known by different names in different cultures, jaggery is not unlike its cousin gula melaka in taste, colour and texture, although the latter is made from palm sugar, not cane sugar. Jaggery can also be obtained from date palm but this is a more prized version and is (perhaps, therefore) less commonly available.
In many parts of India, jaggery is considered to be the 'healthiest sugar' and is known to have health benefits, as well. According to Miss P, it's not uncommon to see jaggery taken a post-meal 'dessert' as it is believed to aid digestion ("it goes very well with a roti ghee!").
Some restaurants even serve a quick bite of it at the end of a meal, while these days you can see people replacing the white sugar in their coffee with jaggery powder and even making ever-so-popular-in-Singapore energy balls with it. It is also mixed with foods like coconuts, peanuts and condensed milk to make traditional desserts like jaggery cake and chakkara pongal, a dessert made from rice and milk.
Where does this magical sweetener come from?
Upon investigation, I learnt that while 70% of the world's jaggery is produced in India, where it is commonly called "gur," jaggery is also produced in other parts of South Asia such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka and used as an ingredient in both sweet and savoury dishes in the cuisines of South Asia, Southeast Asia and some parts of the Middle East, too (at this point I'm just hanging my head in shame for taking only 35+ years to discover it).
Jaggery aka panela in Latin America (and now I'm taking to showing off to overcompensate) is referred to as a 'non-centrifugal sugar' which is just fancy for traditional, raw, unrefined sugar obtained by evaporating the liquid in sugarcane juice (I've detailed the steps below if you're a fellow nerd and want to know what this entails).
"Everyone uses it!"
Jaggery - like all its unrefined cousins - contains more nutrients than refined white sugar since its molasses naturally remain intact in its processing (actually, white refined sugar has zero nutrients, full stop). In addition to claims that jaggery helps with digestion and can stimulate bowel movements, it is also believed that jaggery is a natural detoxifier and can 'cleanse the body', especially by detoxifying the liver. Of course, no two bodies are the same and neither are the effects of foods on these bodies. Listen to what your body tells you about different foods - jaggery included - always.
Back to business; should you replace refined white sugar in everything you make, everything you consume? Let's first consider a few things, shall we?
Firstly, jaggery isn't necessarily a perfect substitute for white sugar - it really depends on what exactly you're putting on the table. I had a chat with my favourite chef in Singapore, Ms. D (aka my-best-friend's-mother), and I must agree with her pearls of wisdom. "Each of these sweeteners has a different role!" she said. And she's right. Sure, jaggery might be a great fit for payasam or coconut fillings, but just like Ms. D, I like gula melaka for its deeper, more caramelesque flavour and it just works better with semi-solid 'pudding-like' foods like coconut panna cotta, pastes like kaya or foods where it's drizzled in liquid form (over said coconut panna cotta, for instance - om nom nom) while regular sugar gives recipes like tiramisu, jellies etc. exactly what they need.
Secondly, jaggery is still a sugar (I may have developed virtual diabetes just reading about jaggery cake) so while it might be a healthier sweetener compared to white sugar and worth substituting where possible (see paragraph above), I would still limit how much of it I consumed. And if I were diabetic or have been advised to lay off sugar for whatever reason, I'd probably lay off jaggery too.
Ready to mess around with some jaggery?
Lucky for us, jaggery can be easily obtained on good ol' Redmart (is there anything you can't get on RedMart?). Or try asking the friendly Uncle or Auntie at your local corner shop, they're likely to have it. If all else fails, shops such as Karthika in Little India carry it. You shouldn't be paying more than $3 for 500g of jaggery (usually in block or powder form).
P/S: When we first started the R&D on our GF DF pandan cake, we attempted replacing unrefined cane sugar with gula melaka. Yeah, gula melaka is no friend of rising of cake. Nor of spirits, in this case.
Next month: Tigernut flour. Nothing to do with tigers or nuts. Lots to do with chocolate chip cookies.
As promised: The Making of Jaggery
(I want to say 'do not try this at home' but I'm actually curious to see how it turns out if you do...keep me posted!)
- Extraction: The canes or palms are pressed to extract the sweet juice or sap
- Clarification: The juice is allowed to stand in large containers so that any sediment settles to the bottom then strained to produce a clear liquid
- Concentration: The strained juice is placed in a very large, flat-bottomed pan and boiled
- Preparation: The sugar cane juice is boiled until it solidifies and then put into blocks
There is no separation of the molasses and crystals in this process, which gives jaggery its raw and unrefined characteristics! Ta da!
Founder, Oh My Goodness!