The vast fertile plains of Bengal are carpeted with gold and green fields of rice. Amongst them stand rows of palms gently swaying in the wind.
The most common among them are the featheryleafed khejur palms, which are the source of the khejur gud. Scientifically, the tree is known as Phoenix sylvestris. Phoenix is the Latin term for “date palm”, while sylvestris means “of the forest” in Latin. Thus, the scientific name is based on the fact that it is a forest or wild relative of the well-known date palm. Wild date palm is native to India and southern parts of Pakistan. But it can be easily cultivated in other warmer parts of the world.
All plants contain sap – a watery fluid that consists of food material manufactured by the leaves. Palm trees are special because they have copious amounts of sap stored in their huge stems. If a leaf or shoot of palm tree is cut, sweet sap oozes out in great quantities. This sap, across the world, has been harvested and used for centuries.
Sap is also harvested from the Palmyra or fan palm (Taad – Borassus flabellifer) that populates coastal regions of India. In Tamil Nadu a dark coloured palm sugar, locally known as karuppatti and pananjeeni, is made from the sap of this palm. Palmyra sugar is also manufactured in some parts of West Bengal. However, wild date palm or khejur palm is the main source of palm sap as well as palm sugar, or khejur gud. Khejur palms are widespread in arid as well as humid conditions on the plains of India. In Maharashtra, they are known as shindi palms. Expert tappers cut off young shoots of the tree and the oozing sap is collected in large pots. Non-alcoholic when fresh, palm sap is extremely sweet and is sold as neera in western Maharashtra. Even though palm sugar can be made from neera, surprisingly, the technique is little known in Maharashtra.
The art of making palm sugar is more or less restricted to West Bengal, where it is now a well-established small-scale industry. Although this practice is also seen in parts of central Tamil Nadu, it is only in small pockets. In West Bengal, the making of khejur gud is a skill that has been perfected over generations. Yes, that is the crux of the matter – the skill of gud (coarse sugar or jaggery) making is acquired through experience and is a guarded secret.
The palms are owned by jamindars – landlord families – and carefully tended over the years. As winter begins, groups of gud makers called moholedars come to khejur country and settle down in temporary hutments called mohols. They have already purchased the rights of sap harvesting from the owners, in fact many of them have traditional agreements with the landowners. Mohols in khejur season are busy roundthe-clock, like ant-hills. Experienced tappers go out in the late evening and make a neat V-shaped incision on the palm tree trunk. They set up a narrow bamboo tube in such a way that oozing sap drips continuously in a special earthen vessel. A wrong incision can lead to the tree getting injured and eventually drying up. A proper incision allows the same tree to be tapped many times. What is significant here is that the tree is not tapped continuously but instead on rotation so that it gets ample rest and can continue to provide sap over the years.
Early in the morning, sap collectors go out and bring back vessels full of sweet sap. By then a huge chulha or wood stove is already in full heat. An enormous pan is filled with sap, which is brought slowly to a boil. The boiling goes on for quite some time and the white sap changes to pale and then dark brown gud syrup. Some amount of old gud is added to hasten the process and the gud syrup is allowed to continue to boil. This finally leads to the formation of gud, which is then transferred into vessels and formed into cakes. Depending on the sugar content in the sap and the expertise of the gud maker, the gud can be harvested in the form of syrup or as cakes. On a cold winter day after Diwali, one can sit at the mohol and drink the sweet palm sap fresh from the tree while watching the dawn break. By the time the sun turns golden yellow and fierce, the gud is ready to be tasted. The taste of the fresh sweet gud, unadulterated by any chemicals, cannot be described.
The finished product, in the form of a lump of khejur gud or a pot of syrup is put up on sale in all the local markets. Most Bengali families, have at least one bottle or lump of khejur gud stored in the house at all times. Mishti doi (sweetened curd) and payash (kheer) made on special occasions is traditionally made using khejur gud and not sugar. Bengali sweet shops sell sandesh and roshogullahs made with khejur gud as special products, which are only seasonally available.
Appropriate weather is the key to the quality of khejur gud. The right sugar percentage of sap is possible only during chilly winters but the palms need warm tropical climate throughout the year to grow and produce the sweet sap. Owing to this, the industry is totally at the mercy of climatic conditions. This is survive the climate changes that we are experiencing today.
Being totally organic, khejur gud has the potential of being marketed as a health product and offers the possibility of being an important source of income in rural India. However, special support from the government and voluntary organizations is needed to organize and train people in the art of gud making and marketing. One such training unit has already been established in the Dahanu area of Maharashtra. But unfortunately training alone is not enough. There has to be more research on palm tree cultivation and strains of improved sap identified and propagated through plantations in rural areas. Better tapping techniques need to be developed to ensure the longevity of the palm trees and guarantee high yields of palm sap. But all this will only be possible if there is an increased demand for khejur gud from diverse markets.
The magic of palm sugar, particularly khejur gud, is still to be fully appreciated even though it is part of an age-old tradition. One hopes that in time, the taste buds of many more respond to its wholesome and exotic flavour and in the process discover the organic specialness of Nature’s bounty.
Source: Heritage India Magazine Vol 3 Issue 4 (2010-11) Author and Photographs: Aparna Watve Web editor: Kshitija Pande