(published in the Hindu, 3/01/2017)
Karthigai has always been one of my favourite festival days. It is celebrated on a full moon night, and this year it was on Tuesday, 13th December. Sisters light lamps and candles and pray for their brothers, who express their love and thanks with gifts. When my daughters were little, they too lit lamps and candles with me in our tea garden home in North Bengal just as I'd done with my mother and sisters when I was growing up in Delhi.
Most of the goodies offered up with prayers on Karthigai are made with jaggery, which is called Vellam (VELL-um) in Tamil and ‘gur’ (rhymes with ‘good’) in a number of other Indian languages. On Karthigai my mother would make Vella Dosai, Appam (little deep fried dumplings) and pori undai (puffed rice laddoos in golden vellam syrup) in large numbers.
I remember that Vellam was always sold in rounds about ten inches in diameter with slightly raised centres – around three inches high. Vellam has a grainy texture, and it is firm, but soft enough to break into chunks. We ate small chunks of it with dosai and adai at home, at 'tiffin time', that traditional South Indian meal eaten somewhere between three and five in the evening. Most children who grew up at the same time as I did thought tiffin was the best meal of the day. You got traditional fast food (though we didn't have that phrase those days) like dosai and adai, uppuma, pakoras (called Bajji) poori-masala and idli (not a favourite with most children). These were actually good for you, in addition to being delicious. There are brown and white versions of many traditional Indian eats and the brown ones are all made with Vellam. There’s white Pongal which is a savoury and Sakkara Pongal, its sweetened brown version. Vellam gives us health benefits in the hot season as well. I remember my mother preparing glasses of icy ‘paanaham’ – a gur sharbat flavoured with dried ginger and cardamom- which kept us cool during the days when Delhi’s ‘loo’ wind was at its height. The taste beat Roohafza or Nimbu pani or any other pani.
Vellam is probably the purest form of cane sugar. It is unrefined and rich in moisture, iron, minerals and 'heat'. It is high in calories, but these are ‘good calories’ unlike the ones in refined white sugar. Shakkar is another form of golden unrefined sugar, a little lighter in colour and powdery in texture. Fresh stocks of Gur and Shakkar arrive at grocery shops at the beginning of the cold weather. I found both in Delhi on my visit there last month. Both were excellent. Only small quantities of Gur and Shakkar make their way into the rural areas of Eastern India.
A couple of months back, I bought some Gur here which was awful. It was adulterated with caramelised white sugar. Hard to believe it, but the cost of Gur has been higher than that of white sugar for some years now. It used to be cheap and available everywhere: the poor man’s sweetener and a traditional rustic dessert. In the nineties, my husband and I would take the train to Madras, and when we passed through the poorer parts of rural Orissa vendors would sell us tea sweetened with Gur.
The Bengali month of Poush began a few days ago, and with it, the open season for bingeing on sweets, particularly those made with Khejur Gur.