Sugarcane mills sprang up in different parts of the country when businessmen realised that sugarcane plants thrived in many parts of India. This led to a jump in manufacturing of not just factory-jaggery but refined sugar as well! It was lucrative enough for more people to invest in starting sugar factories. The after effects of this sudden growth was felt only when the climate began to change!
The lure to reap the monetary benefits lead to rampant sugarcane cultivation even in areas which receive low rainfall. Sugarcane is a water guzzler and is meant to be cultivated only in regions with a high rainfall pattern. This imbalance led to groundwater depletion and also took a toll on soil health.
What was once a farm occupation of producing small batches of natural cane sugar became usurped by the demands of a gigantic sugar industry which manufactured refined sugar after bleaching and processing the natural cane sugar. Along with the obvious dangers to health in eating large quantities of white sugar, traditional sweeteners like jaggery and 'Kaakvi' (liquid sugarcane jaggery) began to disappear from the household kitchens!
The dark mineral rich jaggery was thought to be poor man’s food and was replaced by the blinding white of the white sugar crystals. Food pairings of khapli chapati and kaakvi, idli and thaenpagu, meeta chawal etc were foregone to be replaced by store bought caramel and butterscotch sauces which were anything but natural!
The Kaakvi is an ingredient which came from the process of turning the sugarcane sap into jaggery. In TamilNadu this is referred to as “thaenpagu”. It is dark, the colour of burnished amber and is sweet on the tongue but doesn’t feel heavy on the palate. It is light because it is only partially reduced before the sap caramelises fully to become jaggery.
The process of making the sugarcane juice into jaggery takes almost half a day of slow cooking on a fire. In the farms a long wooden paddle is used to stir the sugarcane nectar as it turns from a pale translucent liquid to a thicker syrupy sauce. The kakvi maker uses no sugar thermometer or tool to know when the liquid jaggery is ready. They go by look, feel and sometimes taste.
The best way to describe the kaakvi is that it is a light golden syrup. It tastes very clean and fresh and does not feel overpowering at all. The minerals in this natural liquid jaggery are the nutrients which the sugarcane draws from the soil. There is iron, magnesium, zinc, sodium and potassium. It is a proven remedy for respiratory and gastric ailments. A kaakvi side dish for a staple meal of roti or idli is very light on digestion and rich in healthy bacteria. From being a detox remedy for liver ailments, boosting immunity and adding energy, the kaakvi is a humble but very effective superfood.
The one thing that is necessary for an active working day is an even release of energy. For a school going child, a working professional, a farm labourer, a retired elder, a homemaker etc the need to get through the day without feeling drained of energy is important. We fail to realise that these home cooked meals aimed at providing exactly that.
In hindsight today we are being hit with the realisation that the very foods we abandoned as being high in calories. Fat and carbohydrates are the very foods our body is seeking to get back the loss in metabolic function.
Filling the nutrition pockets with agave syrup, stevia, maple syrup and other foreign plant based natural sugars will not help. Our Indian DNA recognises the benefits of native foods because it is stored in our cell memory. Locally grown sugarcane which is supported by a manure rich soil with wriggling earthworms and an ecosystem of buzzing insect life is truly the answer to reviving health parameters the traditional way.
The risk of losing such foods in the race to copy new age wellness fad diets is very real. The farms will suffer, traditional occupation will decline and our health curve will only be on the downswing. Let’s do a reality check shall we?
When you walk into your neighbourhood supermarket, how many brands do you see selling kaakvi as opposed to brands selling maple syrup, golden syrup, caramel sauce etc?
Therein lies the proof of how far we have deviated from foods which are an important part of our food heritage. It’s time to undo the damage and reconnect the dots to make the shift back to the wisdom of our grandmothers and the wise before them.
We can still enjoy strawberries grown in the hills by drizzling a spoon of liquid jaggery over them rather than dousing in a film of white powdered sugar. Encourage coaches to give their athletes a glass of nimbu pani Aji mixed with a spoonful of kaakvi. Not only will it be better in terms of energy, it will also not have long term repercussions of eating spoonfuls of glucose powder!
Embracing our own superfoods shouldn’t always have to happen when a foreign chef or food writer calls it the new superfood by pouring it over a stack of millet pancakes!
It’s time we taught ourselves the truth about conventional food science. During winters, the kaakvi can be gently warmed with a bit of cinnamon. As the days get warmer, the kakvi is refreshing and light to pair with steamed idli, idiyappam or dhokla.
If we took the time to search into the almirah of bound family recipes, it would yield an astonishing range of seasonal dishes which were created with an understanding of changes in body and environment in alignment with climate shifts.
We are today at the crossroads of food where making the right turn can be hugely significant in creating an atmosphere which is conducive to native living. Understanding the role of farm based food businesses which work hard at hand crafting foods in small batches is so important. It is these brands which are going to bridge that gap that has widened with the modernisation of the ancient Indian kitchen.
These by the hand from the heart ventures will be the guiding light to lead us towards safe food practices and rescue us from lifestyle illnesses.
We ought to give these saviours a chance. Why not start on a sweet note with a spoon of liquid jaggery?