The first time I tasted jaggery, I dubiously watched the slowly liquifying lump of molten-gold cane sugar ooze into flaky crevices of a layered paratha. It had been “prescribed” to me by my mother in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province because I had a bone-chilling cold. Against the rugged landscape of imposing mountains fencing the Karakoram Highway, I wondered how something looked so decadent could be considered healthy.
Jaggery (called gud in Pakistan) is an unrefined sugar made by evaporating freshly pressed sugarcane juice (and, in some regions, Palmyrah palm, coconut-palm or date-palm sap extracted via tapping techniques) and cooling the thickened liquid in moulds. Its many monikers across South Asia and close parallels beyond, such as panela in Colombia and much of the Caribbean, Hokuto in Japan and rapadura in Brazil – to name a few – attest to its ubiquity.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognises these dehydrated sugar cane juices (and their products) for their non-centrifugated nature, meaning glucose, fructose and mineral residue are maintained instead of being lost in extensive refinement or spinning. While the refining process for white sugar removes “impurities”, it also strips the sugar of micronutrients.
Meanwhile, jaggery’s unrefined nature means trace minerals and molasses residue are retained even after the evaporation process. Molasses give jaggery both its tinge (which ranges in hue from sandstone to chocolate brown) and some reputed health benefits, such as small amounts of calcium and magnesium.
“Jaggery may have emerged as a way to preserve the sugarcane harvest,” said Professor Dr Hakim Abdul Hannan, director of research and development at Hamdard University in Karachi, Pakistan, “So ancient man could have a touch of sweetness all year round.”
Believed to have been introduced to the Indian subcontinent around 6000BC via the Malayan Peninsula and Burma, sugarcane “provides the cheapest form of energy-giving food with the lowest land area unit per unit of energy produced,” notes A C Barnes in his book Agriculture of the sugarcane.
India, which cultivates hundreds of sugarcane varieties, produces more than 70% of the world’s jaggery. And the intertwined pre-partition history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh accounts for its widespread production and consumption throughout the region.