A firm believer in the unwritten manifesto of South Asian mothers and grandmothers around the world, my mother believes there are few ailments that she cannot treat at home with food. One ingredient in particular features regularly in its arsenal of remedies. And unlike many of the peculiar poultices she applies and the pungent concoctions she makes, this one is an easy pill – or ball – to swallow.
This is our native treasure chest of nutrients
The first time I tasted jaggery, I eyed dubiously at the lump of molten gold cane sugar slowly liquefying in the flaky crevices of a layered paratha.. It was “prescribed” to me by my mother in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because I had a cold that froze my bones. In the rugged landscape of towering mountains that enclose the Karakoram Highway, I wondered how something that looked so decadent could be considered healthy. But soon after biting into the complex sweetness, I felt a surge of energy and warmth. As I would soon find out, it was more than a native medicinal food or a delicious dessert. It was the concentrated essence of a thousand-year-old tradition.
Jaggery (called gud in Pakistan) is an unrefined sugar obtained by evaporating freshly squeezed sugarcane juice (and, in some areas, palm, coconut or date palm sap extracted by tapping techniques) and cooling the liquid thickened in mold. Its many nicknames across Southeast Asia and its close parallels beyond, such as panela in Colombia and much of the Caribbean, kokuto in Japan and rapadura in Brazil – to name but a few – attest to its ubiquity.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes these dehydrated sugarcane juices (and their products) for their non-centrifuged nature, meaning that glucose, fructose, and mineral residues are retained instead. to be lost during intensive refining or spinning. While the process of refining white sugar removes “impurities,” it also strips the sugar of micronutrients. Meanwhile, the unrefined nature of jaggery means that trace elements and molasses residue are retained even after the process of evaporation, with molasses giving both its hue (which ranges from sandstone to chocolate brown) and some well-known health benefits, such as small amounts of calcium and magnesium.
But Jaggery’s ubiquity in the subcontinent may have sprung from necessity.
“Jaggery may have emerged as a way to preserve the sugarcane crop,” said Prof Hakim Abdul Hannan, director of research and development at Hamdard University in Karachi, Pakistan, “Thus, the old man could have a touch of sweetness all year round. “
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It is believed that it was introduced to the Indian subcontinent around 6000 BC via the Malay Peninsula and Burma, sugarcane, “provides the cheapest form of energy-intensive food with the smallest unit area per unit of energy produced, “notes AC Barnes in his book. Sugar cane agriculture. India, which grows hundreds of varieties of sugarcane, produces over 70% of the world’s jaggery. And the interwoven pre-partition history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh explains its widespread production and consumption across the region.
Its flavor is the hallmark of sweet and savory South Asian dishes, with scientist Harold McGee explaining how “the distinct, winey aroma of cane sugar contributes to the flavor of Indian, Thai, Burmese and other South American cuisines. Asian and African ”, in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Traditions of Cooking.
In Pakistan, hessian bags overflowing with jaggery in its granular and rocky form are common in wholesale markets in metropolitan cities, such as Jodia Bazaar in Karachi. Sweet nuggets are seen as pieces of nature’s wonderful goodness that provide sweetness, connection and warmth. At home, jaggery is showcased when the craving for sweets is felt, sucked almost like a cough lozenge or lozenge, offered to guests as an accompaniment to tea, or even used to reward children with – a sub-continental equivalent of the cookie jar.
Its depth of flavor – a multi-faceted richness hard to replicate with just the sweet note of white sugar – makes it a quintessential staple in traditional recipes. Travelers will find it in the indulgent halwa and Mithai (Indian sweets) that adorn the shelves of many confectionery stores, including up to laddoo (roasted sesame seeds and combined with a thickened jaggery liquid, often with coconut and peanuts and rolled into balls) or elaborate varieties of halwa such as gud makhandi halwa and some variations of the famous Multani sohan halwa.
Rural memories of childhood, especially in Pakistan’s Punjab province, are incomplete without jaggery rice, a sumptuous dish of sweet rice often topped with coconut and almonds. And jaggery chai is ubiquitous in truck stops as soon as you enter the cooler provinces of northern Pakistan, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where I first tried it – so hard to find. the alternative to white sugar because jaggery lends a unique earthiness. and fortify the aromatic nutty of the tea.
In Pakistan, the repertoire of treats made with jaggery is also inseparable from festive or auspicious occasions, often handed out at weddings or sold on strollers as beloved by children as Western ice cream trucks. “Growing up, I expected theilay-wala (pushcart seller) sale chikki (peanut or sesame infused brittle jaggery) and rush as soon as I hear the familiar jingle, ”said Zia Tabarak, who runs the StreetFoodPK YouTube channel.
Decades later, Tabarak showcased the vibrant Jaggery-making cottage industry in Charsadda, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The artisans’ process is both rustic and revolutionary as they use bagasse (the fibrous pulp that remains after spraying the sugarcane stalks for their juice) as fuel, making it a zero waste initiative. For Tabarak, like many others, jaggery has immense sentimental value. “Finally, seeing how the ‘nature lollipop’ is made was like a fairy tale,” he said.
Its popularity in Pakistan makes it a ritual part of life at all ages. Women in rural Pakistan use it to relieve premenstrual cramps or speed up labor, and infants and children are often treated by their parents to prevent anemia. Many Pakistani seniors end their meals with a piece of jaggery to aid digestion and turn to it for joint pain and inflammation relief, advising their children to do the same.
The cultural importance and significance of jaggery in Pakistan cannot be overlooked
The widespread use of the traditional sweetener for wellness in the subcontinent is rooted in its millennial history as a medicinal sugar. Gud, in particular purana gud (aged jaggery; usually one to three years old is considered the most powerful) appears in historical medical writings as the Sushrata Samhita, a Sanskrit treatise on medicine and surgery, with references citing its benefits in purifying blood, the relief of biliary disorders and the prevention of rheumatic diseases.
Jaggery is also included in traditional Persian medicinal beliefs of “humor-producing” foods, that is, foods that are conducive to the production of phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. Jaggery is believed to aid in the production of blood, which is considered the healthiest and most desirable of the Four Humors.
In addition, its use in balancing vata dosha, one of the three energies that Ayurveda believes to compose each human body in a unique relationship, leads to its prominence in holistic healing preparations. It is often used as a base to make other decoctions tastier and interestingly is also included in Ayurvedic panchakarma therapy, known as one of the most extreme cleansers on Earth due to the rigorous approach to the detoxification of each orifice and a largely limited diet. khichdi (a dish of rice and lentils) and ghee (clarified butter) with the occasional incorporation of jaggery.
“It is our indigenous treasure chest of nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium,” said Dr Muhammad Naveed, a homeopathic physician and oriental medicine practitioner in Karachi, who prescribed it to “strengthen the body. immunity, detoxify the liver, relieve constipation, as an expectorant for phlegm and even a lactation aid for nursing mothers when ground with cumin “.
But according to Dr Sarah Nadeem of the Department of Medicine, Section of Endocrinology and Director of CITRIC (Center for Best Clinical Practices) at Aga Khan University in Karachi, the halo effect on health and the refusal of diabetics to recognize the jaggery like sugar – no matter how unrefined – is potentially dangerous.
“A diabetic’s body doesn’t care if it’s white sugar or jaggery,” she says, advising against viewing it as a liquid cure-all. “Since Jaggery is a little more complex [than white sugar], the insulin spike may occur a little later, but it is still a calorically dense carbohydrate. He [the spike] will inevitably come. “
To benefit from the micronutrients referenced in the studies, she explained, one would need to consume a lot of jaggery – far more than the recommended intake. “The referenced iron is likely leached from the pots where the jaggerie is prepared and stored,” she said. Nadeem regularly counsels patients who paint nostalgic images of their manly elders and attribute much of their longevity and health to functional foods such as ghee and jaggery.
However, the cultural importance and significance of jaggery in Pakistan cannot be overlooked. Here, it’s more than an ingredient; it is a mindset of taking the earth and using food to fight disease, avoid colds, or provide a quick boost of energy – a philosophy internalized by many to this day and passed down from generation to generation. generation. My daughter’s first sweetener was jaggery, and I know if she ever has a cold I will resort to a gud coated paratha to cure her – like my mom did for me and her mom did for it.
“It represents a way of life and living as close to nature as possible,” Hanaan said.
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