Travelling in the Kolhapur district it is a pleasure to see such rich land all around . This is sugarcane area and every other field is tall with sugarcane ripening in the warm sun.The plateau is covered in a sort of mist which I soon discover is the smoke from bagasse fires, as sugar cane juice is being churned in huge iron vats to make rab a thickened syrup.
The bagasse is what is left after the cane has been mangled in a rotary press to remove all the juice. This is carried and spread out around the small rural processing plants, to dry in the sun . When it is dry it is fed into the boiler which is constructed under the vat .
Sayaji Pawar owns a couple of acres of land in Vahagaon which is in Karad Taluka. Vahagaon is also famous for its Bhairavnath Temple. Being near the Krishna River, Sayaji's lands get plenty of water and the cane fields look healthy. He also owns a jaggery processing plant. Making jaggery is as simple a process now, as it was hundreds of years ago.Sugarcane has grown In India since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, four thousand years ago. The extracted juice was strained, boiled and treated with Hibiscus plant stems , or the bark of semul , Salamalia malabarica and phalsa, Grewia Arabica trees as well as treated with sodium bicarbonate, alum and limed water.With a few changes in the additives, the same thing is done today. The whole process from start to finish takes about 4 hours.
I ask Sayaji why he doesn't supply the cane from his lands to the sugar factory close by.
He says "They do not pay everything up front. First they give two thirds of the money, then make us wait for 3 months more and pay the rest.Why should I wait ? Making gur is much better. I get my money as soon as I take it to market in Karad, 7 kms away."
He is happy with his independence from the factories as are several other farmers who process their own cane into gur for which there is still a huge market. Most food in India calls for a bit of gur in dal / lentils or sabzi/vegetable dish.Gujarati, Maharashtrian,Rajasthani and several other regional cuisines cannot do without it. And many sweet snacks like chikki / a brittle made of puffed rice, sesame seeds, nuts etc mainly use gur.
Khand or khandsari , a type of raw light brown to white sugar can also be made from the rab. Now this is done through a centrifugal system . Formerly the boiling molasses was strained with water poured through seaweed. This served to wash the molasses off and the material immediately below the weeds was removed and formed "khand" or "khandsari". India had always exported khand.
There are records of khand being sent to America in 1750 and to Britain in 1789. The latter then figured out, khand could be used to make sugar crystals which would work out a lot cheaper than importing sugar from the West Indies. Initially raw sugar was sent to Britain as ballast in ships!
For years raw sugar was known by different names and came in different forms. Shakkar, also known as bura are gur crystals, that is, unrefined but well drained of molasses.It is used a lot in the North for tea and coffee.Shakkhar is also the word for sugar in Marathi and this led to some confusion.I was under the mistaken impression that I could get that same brown sugar which I used in Punjab, in Pune as well. No such luck. Shakkar is unknown in Maharashtra except as refined crystallized white sugar. Misri and chini, are almost white sugar crystals made from further refining khand by the weed and water process.And kuza khand are the large white crystals, also made by the same process sometimes offered with saunf fennel seeds, as a mouth freshener after a meal.
Rab , or sieved, cleaned, boiled and thickened juice, is poured into a shallow pit lined with thick plates . It is shoveled about with spades till it cools and forms a kind of thick paste.
This is then poured into muslin lined buckets or vats and within 2 hours these have cooled and formed neat and large, hardened, mounds of gur, about 30 kg in weight, which can easily be removed from the vat.
Then its off to market where people buy it in amounts of up to a kilo or less.
Gur is graded according to sucrose content, shape (Bheli, Chakki or Laddoo) texture ( grainy which is known as Rawedar or Danedar or smooth which is known as Chikna.)
Unrefined sugars like gur contain essential minerals such as magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, calcium as well as tiny amounts of fluorine and selenium. Altogether much healthier than refined sugar. Besides that , is also has a taste of its own , not just sweetness.
Makar Sankranti occured during our trip, a day when til (sesame) and gur laddoos /jaggery balls, are exchanged in Maharashtra . The saying, when feeding each other sweets like this, is- " Til Gur ghya, god bola" a literal translation of which would be "take this sweet and speak sweetly". Actually it signifies forgiveness , when bad words and ill will towards anyone is forgotten. Since gur and til "stick together" it is offered during the festival...to remind people and communities to stick together, and remain undivided in their goodwill to all.
Makar Sankranti is also a harvest festival to give thanks to the forces of nature for providing so much.
Instead of making laddoos I make a chikki at home with gur. Instead of sesame seeds you could try other dried fruit, nuts, peanuts, pumpkin or sunflower seeds or even puffed grains like wheat or rice. Any cereal or muesli mix tastes good with gur too.
Chikki/ Sesame seed Brittle
250 gms sesame seeds
200 gms gur/ jaggery
1/2 cup water
Grease a 8" X 5" baking tray and keep aside.
Roast sesame seeds very lightly. Grate the gur/ jaggery. Add the water to the gur and heat the mixture on a low flame. When the mixture starts thickening check it frequently by dropping a bit on a plate.When it congeals almost immediately, the jaggery is ready. Add the sesame seeds and mix quickly. Pour immediately onto the prepared tray. Make indentations of about 1" square across the brittle while it is still warm. When cold, break into pieces and store in an airtight container.