Valued for its seasonality and hyperlocal terroir, the beloved natural sweetener is facing an array of threats, from urbanization to climate change
It’s 3 a.m. in Nimpith, a tiny town in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. Sixty-one-year-old Chuno Mistry heads towards a row of wild date palm trees. Mistry is a shuli, or date palm tree tapper, and he carries earthen pots slung from a bamboo pole, known as a byank, on his shoulder. It’s about 46 degrees out and his lungi and full-sleeved shirt are hardly enough to keep him warm; goosebumps spring up along his exposed skin.
When he reaches the first tree, Mistry ties a rope around his waist and attaches a curved pin to the rope, then latches an empty clay pot, or kolshi, to the pin. Near the top of the tree, another kolshi hangs precariously. Mistry balances his bare feet on the trunk, and climbs up to replace the kolshi, which is full of fresh date palm sap. Called khejur rosh, the sap is the key ingredient to khejur gur, or date palm jaggery. And khejur gur is, in turn, the secret to Bengali sweetness.
Before daybreak Mistry repeats this exercise on 12 date palm trees. After he collects the sweet, clear sap, it is boiled in an earthen wood-fired oven for a couple of hours. “This,” Mistry explains, “is how we make nolen gur, the most premium version of date palm jaggery.”
The whole neighborhood knows when the jaggery is ready from the aroma wafting in the air. It’s cause for celebration: amber-tinged, sticky, fragrant, and slightly viscous, this jaggery, with its distinctive smoky sweetness, is the most precious winter ingredient in a Bengali pantry.
Date palm jaggery is a special type of natural sweetener made by evaporating the sap of wild date palm trees. Harvested between the months of November and February in West Bengal and throughout Bangladesh, it is available in liquid, grainy, and solid forms, known as jhola gur, khejur gur, and patali, respectively. While the grainy gur is used almost exclusively as a side dish to Indian flatbreads, the solid and liquid forms are used as both side dishes and as flavoring agents for Bengali sweets like sondesh, roshogolla, payesh, naru, and pithe. The liquid nolen gur is prized as the best kind of date palm jaggery for its distinctive smoky sweetness. When refrigerated, both liquid and grainy jaggery can be stocked for a week, while patali is good for a year. Unlike cane jaggery, which is ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent all year round, date palm jaggery is valued for its seasonality and hyperlocal terroir, qualities reflected in its distinct aroma and sweetness.
Not surprisingly, most of jaggery’s uses are in sweets and desserts. Tanmoy Das, the owner of the 120-year-old Adhar Chandra Das sweet shop in West Bengal’s Nadia district (a center of jaggery production and sales), says, “like others in Bengal, we suffuse our roshogolla and sondesh [curdled milk sweets] with nolen gur in winter.” His is one of millions of Bengali sweetmeat shops across the subcontinent to create nolen gurer mishti, or desserts; among them are payesh, a rice-and-milk-based pudding, and narkel naru, balls of grated coconut and jaggery. Nolen gur is also now an ice cream flavor, and has found its way into Western-style desserts served in the region. “We serve nolen gur caramel custard, tembleque, and pastries,” says Madhumita Mohanta, chef at the Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata.
As a Bengali, I always look forward to Poush Parbon, a celebration held on the last day of the Bengali month of Poush to mark the Hindu astrological transition of the sun moving into makar rashi, or Capricorn. Sweets made with seasonal ingredients like gur are central to the celebration, which has its origins as a harvest festival in Bengal’s agrarian communities. On this day, our homes hang heavy with the aroma of nolen gur bought from neighborhood grocery stores and sweet shops. Pithe, a dumpling made of rice flour and filled with coconut smeared with nolen gur, circulates among family, friends, and neighbors. We snack on patishapta, a rice flour crepe that encloses coconut splashed with nolen gur.
Our love for nolen gur is shared by Bengalis all over the planet: it is a food that can truly be said to be universally beloved. But this, unfortunately, does not negate another truth about nolen gur: Unadulterated date palm jaggery is on the brink of extinction.
In Bengal, date palm jaggery has been around for so long that it likely “predates cane sugar in the region,” writes culinary historian Michael Krondl in his book Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Considering that the use of granulated cane sugar in the region has been traced back to the fourth century BCE, according to the ancient Sanskrit text Arthashastra, that’s saying something.
Wild date palms grow naturally near canals, isolated ponds, farmland, and wetlands. Their sap is harvested from incisions made in the tree’s trunk with sharp, sickle-like iron tools, then channeled into clay pots through split bamboo stalks that the shuli attach to the trees. Composed of 10 to 20 percent sucrose, the sap breaks down and ferments when it is heated, a process that turns it from sweet to sour; this is why the sap is ideally collected in the hours between dusk and dawn, before the heat of the sun can sour it. “Apart from the microclimate, at what time of the day the sap has been tapped makes all the difference in the quality of the jaggery,” explains Amit Kumar Ghosh, a jaggery dealer with 26 years of experience who hails from Majhdia, a jaggery hub in Bengal.
Sugar is added to the sap — only in small quantities to the most premium jaggery — which “hastens the boiling and increases quantity,” in the manufacturing process, Ghosh explains. It also expands the jaggery’s shelf life. Part of the reason why grainy and solid jaggery are considered inferior to the liquid variety is the high percentage of added sugar. “Patali cannot maintain its shape without sugar,” explains Tanmoy Bera, the owner of Sree Sreemanta Gurer Arath, a 204-year-old cane and date palm jaggery wholesale shop in North Kolkata’s Shobhabazar. In his opinion, the best-quality patali is soft, melts in heat, and is chocolatey in color.
But the main reason sugar is added to date palm jaggery, according to Ghosh and Bera, is to meet soaring demand in the face of reduced production. Many shulis now do a second round of tapping, one that stretches from dawn until noon and yields sour sap: To compensate, the shuli add generous quantities of sugar. To further slow the fermentation, “the pots are coated with quicklime on the inside,” Ghosh says.
The downward trend in production has been playing out for the last two decades, and is attributed to a number of culprits, environmental and otherwise. Natural habitat loss, the destruction of trees, over-tapping, and the attrition of skilled tappers from the profession due to its physical demands and uncertainty are all at play. And then, of course, there is the impact of climate change, which has delayed the arrival of winter in Bengal, making it shorter and unpredictable. Since jaggery can only be made on cold, sunny days, its season is now even more restricted. “Untimely rain, clouds, and fog [are] date palm jaggery’s enemy — the sap on those days turns foul,” says Bera.
Recurring floods, another effect of climate change, have increased soil salinity and caused habitat loss in Bengal. “Our NGO had planted 1,000 seeds of date palm around Joynagar in 2020, but in 2021 we dropped the plan of planting more by the riverside as the saline inundation due to cyclone Amphan has made the soil inhospitable,” says Amitava Roy, a native of Nimpith and the secretary of Lokamata Rani Rashmoni Mission, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable development in the region.
On top of the peril posed by climate change, there is the growing threat of urbanization. In addition to being cut down and replaced with more “economically significant” trees like betel nut, says Roy, date palms have also become the “favorite fuel” of the brick kilns used to produce bricks for concrete houses.
“We have lost many trees to them,” says Ghosh, the jaggery dealer. The district of South 24 Parganas, which was once known for its jaggery, now has almost no trees, or remaining shuli.
While there is no satisfactory study or data available on the depletion of date palm trees, the experience of longtime shuli illustrates the magnitude of the problem. When Mistry, the shuli in Nimpith, began working around 45 years ago, he would tap at least 48 to 50 trees a day. Today, he taps 12.
Meanwhile, fewer trees have led some shuli to engage in unsavory practices to extract their sap. After an incision is made in a tree’s bark, sap flows continuously from it for one to five days. Normally, the next incision isn’t made until the previous one has dried completely, a process that requires at least three continuously sunny, cold days. “Without rest, the trees would eventually die,” says Bera.
But due to booming demand, some overly ambitious shuli refuse to wait, tapping again too early and killing the plants. This is the reason why the date palms of the Middle East and North Africa are not extensively tapped for sap: If trees bear economic and cultural significance, the risk of tapping is generally avoided. “But where the trees in those regions are highly valued for their dates, Bengal’s date palms produce very bad fruit and thus have little economic value aside from that of their seasonal jaggery output,” says Dr. Asok Kanti Sanyal, the former chairman of the West Bengal Biodiversity Board. As such, the government has done little to protect them, aside from conducting periodic environmental awareness drives at government colleges; at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, for example, students have been encouraged to plant more date palm trees around campus.
The risks posed by irresponsible tapping underscore the extent to which the trees’ survival depends in part upon the skill of the shuli, who typically do not own the trees they tap but instead lease them for the season from landowners they pay in either cash or jaggery. If shuli continue to quit the profession, something occurring at an increasing rate, their skills could soon become extinct, putting the trees in further danger.
The shuli who stay in the profession mostly do so out of emotional attachment to their identity as gur makers, Ghosh says. It is an extremely demanding job that requires climbing up and down trees barefoot in the cold, he points out — “it terribly harms the feet.”
Those issues have trickled down to the end product. Some shuli use bottled nolen gur essence, which claims to successfully mimic the natural sweetener’s olfactory and flavor notes, to flavor poor-quality jaggery. (The essence is intended more for use by sweetmeat sellers.) And some sweet sellers eschew the seasonality of the product: “Nolen gurer mishti is nowadays available the whole year round,” says Saurav Gupta, owner of The Whole Hog Deli & Charcuterie, a Kolkata-based online store that sells nolen gur only during the winter, when it’s in season. “The sweet sellers would never confess to using the essence and [instead] claim they stock the whole year’s supply of nolen gur and store it in freezers.”
Miles away from Bengal, at my home in Mumbai, I take the last ounce of patali from the fridge. It doesn’t melt, so I use pliers to break it. I know that it is of bad quality, but at least I get to have some. As I eat, Chuno Mistry’s words haunt my thoughts. “I am the last surviving shuli of my village,” he told me. “The trees I tap are the last surviving trees here.” Unless the trees, and the shuli who tap them, are conserved, that scene will continue to play out until the future of Bengal’s date palm jaggery is relegated to the past.
Tania Banerjee is a freelance writer from Kolkata currently based in Mumbai. Her writing about travel, culture, the environment, and food has appeared in the BBC, Bon Appétit, Juggernaut, and elsewhere.
Cha Pornea is an illustrator and designer based in the Philippines.