The date palm bears many gifts this season. Its nectar is a popular drink, and is also used to make two kinds of jaggery, including the popular nolen gur
Bengalis, Odias and Biharis living outside their states will beam in delight at the mere mention of khejur/khajur gur or jaggery made from date sap. This winter speciality is so precious that a shopkeeper in Sainikpuri, Secunderabad, has been gifted a fridge by his regular Odia customer to prolong the shelf life of the seasonal product. Mohammed Ali, the 55-year-old shopkeeper says, “Last year, I had to discard a lot of nolen gur as it has a very low shelf life. If not stored well, it soon gives out a fermented smell. So this year, before the season started, a regular customer gifted me his refrigerator, saying he hated seeing so much gur go waste last year.”
Soumyo Sengupta who works on sustainable agriculture practices in West Bengal, explains that date sap jaggery can be obtained in two forms. They are nolen gur and patali. Nolen means new. So nolen gur essentially means new/fresh gur made from date sap. Patali is solid gur that is commonly sold as a disc, and has a longer shelf life. It has a smoky, caramelised flavour because it is made over firewood; even though it is hard, it is actually fudgy when bit into.
Date sap or date palm jaggery is a small scale industry product in West Bengal and Jharkhand.
Drink or eat?
Every winter, fans of date sap toddy make at least a few trips to toddy sellers on the outskirts of their respective city or village.
As Bengal-based Sayantani Mahapatra, a food blogger, says, “The colder it gets, the sweeter is the toddy. I love the nolen gur made from date sap. This extremely prized seasonal produce, occupies a special spot in the hearts of those who dig in anything and everything that is authentically mishti (sweet). Payesh (kheer), sandesh and rosogolla made from nolen gur are seasonal delicacies in Bengali homes.”
Down South in Telangana, the date sap itself is a prized natural winter drink, not only among villagers but also among urban picnickers who head to toddy outlets just for this. Distinctly sweet with a definite zing, the diluted milk-like toddy, if drunk fresh or within an hour of it being brought down the tree, does not leave the drinker intoxicated even when consumed in fairly large quantities. Raju Goud, a 40-year-old date toddy tapper in Siddipet, Telangana, says the trees are prepared every year before the season, by cleaning the old dried palms, cleaning the surroundings of the sap from where the toddy is to be extracted and by checking the health of the tree.
Says Raju, “Only an experienced toddy tapper can tell the health of a tree. There are male and female trees; female trees give better and more toddy. The demand is so high during this season that some people even adulterate it with sweeteners. So it’s always advisable to drink toddy from a tapper you know and trust. ” Another toddy tapper, Akhil Goud says, “Extracting the sap is a dangerous task and requires talent. If there is a lot of dew on the tree: tappers can slip and fall. We have to take care and precautions.”
Telangana’s villagers don’t cook with the sap toddy. “Why waste a natural drink by mixing it with food, when you can drink it straight up?” asks Raju.
And he suggests an ideal food combination to go with it: “We call it Susheela. It is a combination of puffed rice and spicy nattu kozhi [country chicken] curry. No one knows why the locals call it Susheela. I feel it is because it compliments the sweet toddy.”
In parts of South India, date sap is not used to make jaggery, but instead finds its way into the recipes of staples like appams and chicken curry.
Play with it
Executive Chef Thimma Reddy of The Park in Hyderabad, however, insists that there is no need to restrict its use to just those dishes. Fresh toddy can be used to make the batter for pancakes, he says, adding, “A sorbet with date toddy and Himalayan salt would be a winner at a Christmas lunch or dinner.”
Soumyo points out that traditionally, Bengalis make it a part of their winter diet. Soumyo explains, “Date jaggery or date palm jaggery is an ideal sugar substitute and can be used as a natural sweetener. This jaggery is believed to contain far more nutrients which are beneficial for the body than white sugar.”