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 preparingglasses of icy ‘paanaham’ – agur 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
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.
I remember days of sugar
shortage and rationing. That was also the age when readymade garments were
costly and you got your clothes made by the tailor, when all our vegetables and
fruits were not evenly sized and brightly coloured hybrids, but actually tasted
of the earth from which they came.
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
Khejur Gur is Gur made from
date palm sap. The sap is sweet and ready for collection at the beginning of
the cold weather, and it gets sweeter as the weather gets colder. I saw and
tasted my first Khejur Gur sweets when I got married and moved to the Dooars,
North Bengal.They weren’t all that well
known outside Bengal in those days. Once I tasted them, I was hooked for life.
Bengali Khejur Gur sweets are golden and boozy in flavour, with a mellow
richness that can’t be matched. We used to travel the length of Dooars at least
once a week, and my husband managed to hunt out the best eateries and
sweetshops in all the little towns. Pretty soon, we zeroed in on Nagrakata, Mal
Bazar and Bagdogra (in that order) as the places which stocked the best ‘Khejur
Gur er Mishti’.Around five years ago, there was a sudden drop in the quality of
these sweets. The sweetshops stocked them in large numbers, but alas, they no
longer tasted the same. It didn’t take long to discover the truth. There was no
Khejur Gur to be had anywhere, and the sweetshops had switched to caramel.This happened because there were no Khejur
(date) palm trees growing anywhere any more.