An unrefined cane sugar popularly used in Asian cuisine
You might have seen it in Asian shops, on ingredient lists, or if you’ve been lucky enough to travel around India, you might even have seen it being boiled down by hand in towns and villages. But for many, jaggery’s culinary characteristics remain somewhat elusive.
“I think jaggery is one of the most little-understood ingredients,” sighs Roopa Gulati, food writer, chef and Borough’s go-to expert on all things Indian. “A lot of people don’t really know what to do with it, but for me, it’s one of those things I always have in the cupboard. It is absolutely delicious—but don’t just take my word for it!”
Available from Spice Mountain, jaggery is a traditional ingredient found across south and southeast Asia. “It’s essentially an unrefined form of sugar,” says James at the stall. “It’s popular among those in the know because it’s completely unprocessed.”
It is made from either sugarcane or the sap of various species of palm tree, heated until soft and syrup-like before being skimmed of any impurities and put into bucket-like moulds to set.
Mellow or nutty
“Jaggery is usually sold by region, rather than brand, and it differs depending on where it comes from,” Roopa continues. “You might get one batch that has a deep mellow or nutty flavour, or sometimes you’ll get something very pale, that potentially should’ve had a bit longer cooking. It’s a bit like the terroir of wine, in that it’s affected by the land: the tree it’s come from, the weather, the soil, the hand that stirred it. That’s what’s so lovely about jaggery—no two batches are the same.”
When freshly-made, jaggery is soft and marzipan-like in consistency, but the longer you leave it, the firmer it becomes. “Typically, over here, it will be dry and quite firm, but drier jaggery also has its charms. You can just chip bits off or grate it—it’s hard work, but it is worth it.”
While sweet, jaggery has a complexity of flavour entirely unmatched by its processed, refined counterparts. “It’s very commonly used to make Punjabi sweets, often melted down and added with nuts and fruits to make a sort of peanut brittle, but I also like to use it when I want a sweet-sour contrast, to balance out the flavour of ingredients such as lime or tamarind,” says Roopa.
“I use jaggery in my prawns with lime rice recipe, as well as in dressings for Thai-style dishes. In wintertime, I even put it in the punch! Just add a lump with a slug of brandy to your glugg. It will melt into it and give it a lovely toffee undertone—think butterscotch,” she advises. “If I had to associate jaggery with a season, it’d definitely be winter. It’s just so heart-warming, it’s a lovely thing.”
Build up the flavour
Chef and owner of Gujurati Rasoi Urvesh Parvais uses jaggery in his recipe for mugg, and suggests adding it to rainbow chard patra—but “unless you’re baking, when of course everything’s scientific, you can just experiment with it in any dish you might add brown sugar,” says Roopa. “My philosophy is to add a little at a time and then build up the flavour. If you add too much you will ruin it.”
Roopa’s favourite thing to do with jaggery, however, is deliciously simple: “I use it on porridge. Put a little lump in when it’s warm. It takes a little while to dissolve, so you come across these little buds of sweetness. It’s fantastic”—on a cold, January morning, we can think of little more comforting.