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Bengal's liquid asset
Nolen gur, the liquid date palm jaggery that is traditionally poured over muri or used to make payesh, can give even Western dishes like cheesecake and puddings a wonderful smoky flavour
Winter visitors to Kolkata carry back with them a variety of local craft and flavours, but nothing is treated with quite the reverence as the bottles of Nolen Gur - liquid date palm jaggery - wrapped in thick layers of towels or shirts and placed carefully at the well-cushioned center of bags. I have known people to leave behind books, even a favorite pair shoes, and, in the case of those living abroad, be prepared to risk stringent customs and border control checks, rather than sacrifice those bottles of liquid amber.
I can't blame them. Made from the fresh liquid extract of the date palm tree, Nolen (a Bengali word that combines the sense of new and soft/liquid) Gur is procured and processed in rural Bengal during the short cold season, and is an artisanal product with a unique taste and texture. Its flavour is the alchemy of smoky sweetness with the faintest whisper of saltiness;it is just liquid enough to pour and cloak a scoop of vanilla icecream;yet sufficiently heavy to pool at the center of a hot chappati to be quickly rolled and popped into the mouth.
In Bengal Akher Gur - jaggery made from sugar cane juice - both liquid and solid, is plentiful. But it is Nolen Gur that is prized, commands higher prices and enjoys a gourmet status because of its distinct nuanced flavour and incredible weighty, motile texture.
The base of Nolen Gur is the sap of the date palm tree. Incisions are made on the trunk to release the sap and clay pots tied just below to collect the slow dripping juice. As a child, one of the high points of December holidays in Shantiniketan when the extended family would gather, were the early morning cycle trips with cousins to sample freshly tapped khejurer rash - date palm tree juice. We would have to start off at the crack of dawn and cycle through the cold morning mist, deep into the Birbhum countryside, in order to arrive just as the tappers were bringing down the clay pots. The juice ferments easily - turning into tari, a favorite and heady local tipple! But when had fresh, it's sweet and fruity and wonderfully refreshing. On one outing, we visited a nearby village to watch the khejur rash being transformed into gur. In a just-harvested paddy field, a large, long vat had been placed on a briskly burning straw-fueled fire. It was close to noon when we arrived and hours of heat had transformed the thin syrup into a dark heavy liquid, like molten caramel that burbled in a roiling boil and was stirred occasionally with longhandled wooden ladles. Much of this liquid gur would be packed into clay urns or tins and sent to markets;the rest would cool in mound-shaped moulds till they hardened into fudge-solid Patali or set Gur. Half a ladleful was poured over a metal bowl of freshly-made, still-warm muri - puffed rice - the bowl shaken to coat the crisp grains and then handed over to us. The gur was permeated with strawfragrant smoke - a flavor that characterises Nolen Gur - and standing in the warm winter sunshine, savoring the mix of fresh muri made sticky and smoke-sweet with hot liquid gur we knew, intuitively, that it didn't get much better - or simpler - than this!
And traditionally, in Bengal, Nolen Gur is enjoyed in the simplest of ways - poured over muri, on bread, or on luchis (puris ) left over from the previous evening. Payesh is cooked with it, sandesh filled and flavored with it, and kheer or coconut-plumped patishpatptas (pancakes made with rice paste) scale new heights in gourmet pleasure when served with warmed liquid gur.
But this burnished liquid has culinary uses that go far beyond its cultural roots. It readily flows into foods from across the globe, smoothly adapting to different cuisines, yet always introducing its own distinct voice to the flavor register of the original dish and thereby subtly changing it to something new.
Smear Nolen Gur instead of the usual Maple Syrup over Sunday brunch pancakes and you introduce a burnt caramel richness with a hint of the exotic. I discovered that the strong character of the gur is the perfect match for buckwheat crepes, pairing as an equal with the strong, full-bodied taste of the reddish flour. Make the crepes and roll them up with a soft cottage cheese filling that's shot through with Nolen Gur. Just before serving dribble some warmed Gur over the rolled crepes.
When used to flavor cheesecake, Nolen Gur produces a gorgeous dessert that fuses flavors of the east and west. Follow your regular recipe for plain/ vanilla cheesecake - the type that's set in the fridge, not baked - cutting back on sugar, and once you've poured the mix into the springform pan (already lined with your biscuit base) - use a fork to swirl liquid gur through the pristine white of the creamy mix to achieve an attractive marbled effect.
The sweet warmth of date palm jaggery responds beautifully to heat-inducing spices like ginger making it an ideal ingredient in ginger biscuits and ginger snaps. Comfort giving steamed puddings of the cold season - think ginger and marmalade - turn out extraordinarily well (both in terms of taste and texture) when the golden syrup or treacle called for in the recipe are replaced with Nolen Gur.
It's not just sweets and desserts that Nolen Gur enhances: it also works superbly with meat and fish. When smoking fish, I brush a mix of Nolen gur, mustard powder and lemon juice with deeply satisfying results. The Gur adds a caramel depth to the smoky flavoring that is quite indefinable yet irreplaceable. Marinate pork ribs or chops in a sticky bath of Nolen Gur, star anise, ground ginger and chili flakes for a fragrant, flavorful barbeque. The same marinade can be used for duck, quail and chicken - especially if you have a rotisserie that allows you to spit roast these birds (but pot roasting works deliciously too).
Nolen Gur stays for months in the fridge. I buy a few large (1 kg) pots every year, decant into glass bottles and refrigerate. This way, all year round, I have a read supply of sweet, smoky liquid bronze for cooking, toppings, or, best of all, a quick swig when a sugar craving hits!
BOSTON BAKED BEANS WITH NOLEN GUR
Traditionally made with molasses, Nolen Gur and the addition of cumin gives this North American classic a wonderfully rich twist 250g rajma or navy beans cooked (reserve liquid) 100g streaky bacon chopped (leave out for vegetarian option) One large onion peeled One table spoon sharp mustard (I prefer Kasundi) Pinch cumin powder, chili flakes, salt and pepper to taste One cup Nolen Gur
Sautê bacon in heavy bottomed pan till semi-cooked and releasing fatty juices. Add the beans and all other ingredients, and some of the reserve liquid. Stir, cover and let simmer for about 20 -30 minutes (check and add more reserve liquid if drying up). The end product should have a thick, cloaking sauce, and taste of a combination of sweet, heat and (if using) bacon meatiness.
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