“Can I help you sir?” asked the young man at the Indian/Himalayan market. Big smile, hands wrung together, plastic sandals. Already I was thinking the answer was probably ‘no’.
“Do you have any jaggery?” I asked.
Now his smile was just as big but his ink-black brows were driving toward each other like battling caterpillars. “Shagree?”
“Jaggery. It’s palm sugar.” I gestured at the market crammed with unfamiliar brands and products.
“Ahh, yes, we have here?” The rising inflection at the end of his statement didn’t make either of us feel confident. He walked me over to a glass case full of cartons of cigarettes. “Yes? This you want?”
Despite this I found myself a honking big cone of jaggery and brought it home to start cooking. I’d read that jaggery was great for brewing, imparting a nutty and creamy flavor that is absent in plain-jane white granulated sugar. Plus I never pass on an opportunity to say jaggery, which sounds more like a description of the tops of the Alps than a creamy brown sugar. First, I’ll say it again–jaggery–then I’ll explain that I’d heard it was palm sugar. But the only jaggery I could find at the Indian market, with no assistance from Mr. Confused, was made from cane sugar. So I also bought some discs of Thai palm sugar. Yes, me like.
First let’s talk about the jaggery I bought. It’s Kolhapuri jaggery, which an Indian friend of mine tells me IS made from cane and should only be used in black tea and never with milk. “It’s not the Indian way,” she said in a friendly chide. Well, good thing I’m not Indian so I can break the jaggery rules even though I risk a rampaging Ganesh busting down the front door and trampling me. Here’s the good stuff and you can see how I’ve carved away at it with knives and forks. It crumbles under pressure and melts in hot liquid.
It has a sweet and toasted caramel flavor with an faint salty tang and is completely unfamiliar to my Western palate. Unless you’ve grown up with this you’ll taste it once and demand a second and third taste–it’s exotic and intriguing. I also learned from my friend that if I want palm sugar jaggery I should buy Karupatti jaggery, not Kolhapuri. But of course!
In contrast, the Thai palm sugar is harder–the discs clunk against each other in the bag and have a more refined maple flavor. To get this ground you need a mortar and pestle.
So far I’ve used the jaggery in lieu of honey in my weekly bread, I’ve mixed in in with homemade chai, I’ve added it to my coffee instead of plain sugar, and even made chocolate chip cookies with it. In short it is a great substitute for white sugar when you want more dimension and creaminess, and is a substitute for brown sugar when you don’t want the tarry astringency of molasses. I’ve yet to use the palm sugar for anything yet but will probably incorporate it in my next dark beer since it can dissolve during the boil.
If you don’t have the good luck to live near an Indian market you can find piloncillo or panela, a molded cane sugar, at your local Hispanic grocery. I’d love to hear from you readers if you’ve used jaggery for something. I’m thinking you could mix it with oil and vinegar to make a great marinade for chicken or maybe bake some Indian spice cookies with jaggery, cardamom, ginger, and cloves. Happy experimenting!