K Antony Xavier, J Arockiaraj
Production units function with a team comprising labourers involved in cutting sugarcane from the fields to those toiling near the cauldrons.
A N Shantharam, a jaggerymaker of Madurai, says Pongal and jaggery are intertwined.
“Sakkarai Pongal’s taste depends on the amount of jaggery we add to the rice. For every kg of rice, a kg-and-half of jaggery should be added,” he says.
M Saravanan, a sugarcane farmer and unit owner at Kottaimedu village, near Alanganallur, says jaggery production commences by January and continues till March. The preparatory works commence in December. The price of jaggery is but steadily falling, he says.
Last year, 10-kg bags were sold at `550-600. But the prices are presently between `400–450.
Finding farm hands is a real challenge at jaggery units, Saravanan adds. His team is from Udumalaipet.
“Once upon a time, jaggery was an important sweetener.
Sadly, it has shrunk to be a commodity thought of only during Pongal,” says K A Kamaraj, joint secretary, Tamil Nadu Jaggery Merchants Association. Kamaraj says jaggery is a healthier option compared to refined sugar. M Durga Devi, Assistant Professor of Food Products at the Indian Institute of Crop Processing Technology stated that jaggery is unrefined sugar containing sucrose and minerals like iron and potassium. Sugar is immediately absorbed in the blood whereas jaggery, having long chains of sucrose, undergoes delayed metabolism.
“So, diabetics are advised to take jaggery and not refined sugar,” she said.
The adulteration of jaggery, using sugar and dangerous chemicals, is becoming a concern. Jaggery-makers use refined sugar with sugarcane juice to increase colour. Adulteration of palm jaggery with sugar syrup has been reported in Tiruneveli and Tuticorin districts. During jaggery preparation, lime (calcium hydroxide) is added to clean the sugarcane juice.
Of late, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) or sulphur dioxide is used. However, adulterants such as super phosphate and chemical dyes are being used widely. The jaggery made in southern districts like Madurai, Theni, and Virudhunagar is relatively pure as they mostly make ‘Malayala Urundai’ (pure jaggery) for the Kerala market, Kamaraj says.