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I Spice: Jaggery

Jaggery, under various names, is used in many parts of the world. (Sala Kannan)

Don’t let the name scare you: Jaggery isn’t, as a Facebook friend put it, a word for a sharp, broken knife. It's a natural sugar commonly used in Asian cuisines and, under other names, in parts of Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Most sugar is made by chemically processing cane juice so all the nutrients are stripped out. Jaggery is naturally processed from the sap of sugar cane or palm trees, without the use of any chemicals. According to an article in Yoga Journal, jaggery retains all its minerals (including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and iron and traces of zinc and copper) during processing, and it has 50 times the mineral content of refined sugar.

Recipe Included

That's why it's also known as a medicinal sugar. In Ayurvedic medicine, jaggery is used to treat respiratory infections. I remember my grandmother giving me a bit of gur (the Hindi word for jaggery) after dinner when I was a child. She said it would sweeten my mouth and help my tummy digest. What more could you want from a sweetener?

And then there's the taste.

It's like a cross between rich brown sugar and molasses, with a buttery, caramel-like aroma. Its flavor is strong, but it is less sweet, spoon for spoon, than more refined sugars. And I find palm jaggery less sweet than sugar cane jaggery. Before you attempt to substitute it for molasses, brown or white sugar, taste and see how your palate reacts.

Chef Santosh Tiptur of Co Co. Sala loves jaggery. He remembers his father telling him that jaggery was widely used in his early days in India because refined sugar was so expensive and often rationed. Even today, he says, a large percentage of the world's jaggery comes from India, where it is often used to make milk-based desserts and drinks. I've seen jaggery used there as an offering to God during daily prayers and during special festivals. Also, in India it is customary to offer guests something sweet when you greet them, share good news or celebrate an event, and jaggery often plays an important role at those times.

Jaggery can vary in color from golden brown to a very dark brown, which Tiptur says reflects the differences between jaggery that's made entirely with the paler sugar cane juice and that made with only the darker palm sugar, depending on the season.

Besides the taste differences from other types of sugar, jaggery's consistency is different, too, which is why Tiptur agrees that substitutions can be tricky. But he suggests using it instead of sugar when making rice pudding, flan, syrup for pancakes, brittle and sugar cookies. Since jaggery comes in hard lumps, I often simply grate it to add to my tea or some warm milk for the kids. And a small piece of it is delicious raw.

Eileen Smith, who writes the blog Bear-Shaped Sphere, lives in Santiago, Chile, where jaggery is called chancaca, and she uses it to sweeten various dishes, in marinades, and even in the water she uses to boil bagels. Most commonly, though, chancaca is used to make a thin, molasses-like sauce for sopaipillas, "fried disks of dough enriched with squash and served ‘pasadas’ (sort of like wet, or soaked)," she said in an email.

Jaggery is similar to panela and piloncillo, other Latin American forms of sugar, so it can be used in recipes calling for those, such as cafe de olla.

Chef K.N. Vinod of Indique and Indique Heights uses jaggery in a martini that he serves at his restaurants. And Devany Vickery-Davidson, who writes the blog MyHawaiianHome, sent me a recipe for a carrot-ginger pickle using jaggery that she got from a friend who in turn got it from her mother.

While this pickle adds a sweet-and-sour touch to your plate, remember: The taste is concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Depending on your sweet tooth, the same probably cannot be said of jaggery.

-- Monica Bhide
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Carrot-Ginger Pickle. (Sala Kannan)

Carrot-Ginger Pickle
Makes about 3 cups

Brown mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, urad dal, curry leaves, asafetida and jaggery are available at Indian groceries.

MAKE AHEAD: The pickle needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours before serving. It will keep for several weeks.

Adapted from Devany Vickery-Davidson, who blogs at

8 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (2 tablespoons)
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
4 to 5 medium cloves garlic
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
3/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 tablespoons urad dal (see headnote)
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
8 to 10 fresh curry leaves
1 teaspoon pure chili powder, such as ancho
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
Pinch asafetida (optional; see headnote)
1/4 cup grated jaggery
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar

Lay the carrots on a clean dish towel; roll up in the towel and squeeze to remove all water.

Combine the ginger, onion and garlic in the bowl of a food processor; puree until smooth.
Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat, swirling to coat evenly. Add the mustard seeds, fenugreek, urad dal, cumin and fennel seeds. Once they start to sputter, add the ginger puree, then the curry leaves. Stir-fry the mixture until light golden brown.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the chili powder, turmeric and asafetida, if using, then add the jaggery and salt, stirring to incorporate.

Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Taste and adjust the spices: You want it to be hot chili-wise, but slightly sweet-and-sour from the sugar and vinegar.

Mix in the carrots, place into a clean glass jar, cover and store in the refrigerate.

Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 170 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  June 4, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, spices  
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