“In West Bengal, Date Palm Jaggery Is a Winter Delicacy. It’s Also in Danger of Extinction.”
by Tania Banerjee
Eater, December 22, 2021
Our ambrosia is tapped in winter
In crisp winter evenings, after the sun has gone down, armed with sharp tools, siulis climb up wild date palm trees. They poke a hole in the tree trunk, attach a bamboo channel, and direct it to an earthen pot that they hang from the trunk. Drop by drop, date palm sap fills the pot throughout the night. Before sunrise the next day, the pots are retrieved. This is West Bengal’s ambrosia, our secret to wintery sweetness.
In West Bengal, a state in eastern India, this date palm sap is boiled to manufacture the aromatic khejur gur or date-palm jaggery. According to their texture (liquid, grainy, solid) and the processing involved, they are further classified as nolen gur (liquid), jhola gur (grainy) and patali (solid blocks). The natural sweetener is the secret to the winter sweets of West Bengal and the reason behind their light brownish tint.
Nolen gur is added to a wide range of sweets made of curdled milk that West Bengal is famous for— a variety of sondesh and rosogolla. It is also added to payesh (rice cooked in milk) and various kinds of pithe (dumplings made of rice flour and filled with coconut and jaggery) and patishapta (a crepe made of rice flour and filled with coconut and jaggery). Introduced by the Portuguese, Dutch and French, curdled milk sweets are recent additions to Bengal’s platter; payesh, pithe and patishapta, though, are ancient desserts. And Nolen gur has always played a major role in enhancing their taste in the winter months.
The range of jaggery is also savoured with roti (non-fried flatbread), porota (lightly fried flatbread), luchi (small deep fried flatbread) and store bought breads. We have it all the time at breakfast and dinner during winter. However, our beloved khejur gur is under threat. The siulis are becoming rarer, switching to other professions that pay better. The quality of the sap from the trees is deteriorating thanks to air, water and soil pollution.
Sweets are such an important part of the diet in West Bengal that even during the pandemic-induced strict lockdown, the sweet shops were given permission to operate. Modern Indian chefs are striving to take nolen gur to another level, from ice-creams to French Crème brûlée – innovation with nolen gur is bringing the world together on the table.
Would you be interested in a story on date-palm jaggery of West Bengal focussed on the challenges this natural sweetener faces? (I believe ‘real’ date palm jaggery is at the brink of extinction) I intend to write this as a mix of reported and personal essay. I have very elaborate experiences with the ingredient.