For many people in Tamil Nadu, Coimbatore doesn't quite enjoy the same hallowed reputation as Madurai when it comes to culinary credentials. A series of restaurant discoveries staged by Coimbatore's new Ibis City Centre hotel on a recent trip, changed that perception for me somewhat. One of my stops was Anandhas, a quintessential South Indian vegetarian chain where the culinary team doesn't just stick to a template. A jackfruit kesari and a coriander Pongal were among the innovations that showcased the creativity of this team. But above all it was Anandhas' take on the iconic South Indian sweet - Mysore pak, that wowed me.
Of all the Bengali sweets that I love (that list is quite long), nothing quite compares to the nolin gur sondesh. I timed my last trip to Kolkata to coincide with the Nolin gur season. I've often wondered why sweet shops in Tamil Nadu have shied away from incorporating a healthy sugar alternative like karupatti (or palm jaggery) in traditional sweets, the same way a nolin gur is used in sondesh. It's why the karupatti Mysore pak at Anandhas stood out. It's the same melt-in-your-mouth Mysore Pak except this one uses palm jaggery instead of sugar. It's also not cloyingly sweet like the traditional Mysore pak.
Unofficial estimates suggest that the Southern districts of Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli are home to more than 50% of Tamil Nadu's palm trees. The state's Palm Products Development Board pegs the number of palm trees in Tamil Nadu at over 50 million. These districts employ thousands of workers in the palm sugar trade. A tradition that hasn't changed for decades. The process is quite similar to how nolen gur is made. An earthen pot is placed under a palm sapling that is skilfully scythed. The sap that oozes from the sapling is collected in these pots. The pots are coated with slaked lime to ensure that the sap does not ferment. Most of this activity takes place between January and May.
This unfermented juice is a great summer drink; locals call it padaneer. In smaller towns in Southern Tamil Nadu, it's not uncommon to see this drink served on palm leaves that are expertly folded into mugs. In the early 1980s, the State Palm Products Development Board bottled this drink and promoted it as 'Palm Cola'. Superstar Rajnikanth featured in a commercial (one of the only commercials he's ever been part of) to endorse this drink. This blurry video has recently been unearthed by his loyal fan base. The fermented version of this extract is toddy.
(Also Read: What is Palm Sugar? Is it Really Good for You?)
The unfermented juice is filtered and then boiled till it bubbles in iron vats. Once it's cooled, it is poured into moulds - most farms use coconut shells for the moulds. Once it is 'set' in these moulds, the karupatti or karuppu (black) patti is ready for consumption. My maternal great grandmother was a big believer in the health benefits of karupatti. I was told that she used it as a sugar substitute in her filter coffee. A few years ago, I worked with a renowned Chennai dietician to present healthy daily alternatives as part of a program organised for a leading organic store in the city. One of the many suggestions we proposed was palm sugar as a sweetener for coffee. I've taken my great grandmother's cue and it certainly doesn't alter the flavour of my strong morning tumbler of karupatti filter coffee.
The health benefits of karupatti are manifold. It's high in vitamin B, iron and calcium. A great source of energy and the presence of iron makes it a great antidote for anaemia. It also has a much lower glycaemic index (varying estimates between 35-40) compared to white sugar (60-70). It's still however a concentrated form of sugar and it's best for diabetics to check with their doctors on portion sizes. Karupatti is now available across online and offline platforms but unfortunately some artificial versions have also started to surface. The original karupatti is usually harder, doesn't dissolve instantly, is dull (not overly polished) and also features colour inconsistencies. Aside from the sugar in your coffee, you can also substitute jaggery with palm jaggery. Here's a recipe for a summer cooler (that we published earlier) - panagam that tastes as good with palm jaggery
Panagam (Serves 4)
- Karupatti or jaggery - 150 gms
- Water - 600 ml (three glasses)
- Juice of three lemons (medium size)
- Dry ginger powder - teaspoon (can be substituted with crushed ginger)
- A pinch of cooking camphor (optional)
- Soak jaggery in the water till it melts completely.
- Filter the water to remove any particles.
- Add the lemon juice.
- Add the powders and stir well.
- Although it is refreshing at room temperature, it tastes even better chilled.
So make this recipe and enjoy the flavours of the same.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.