Nolen Gur-A Delightful Date With Winter
Image Credit: Nolen Gur patishapta

Across rural Bengal and now in urban India too, nolen gur, or date palm jaggery, is one of the most coveted "dates" one’s palate looks forward to with winter. Poush Sankranti, the Bengali version of Makar Sankranti, was celebrated last week, and I am still drooling (in my mind, of course) over all the puli-pithe, patishapta, and paayesh in a flurry of social media posts by my Bong or Bengali friends and family. While these desserts use freshly harvested rice, or "nabanno," which is in season during Sankranti, what gives them a sheen is nolen gur, a magical ingredient that is a must-have in Eastern India, particularly Bengal.

Nolen gur or khejurer gur, sometimes even referred to as "notun gur" or new jaggery, is extracted from the sap of the date palm trees, involving both labour and the dexterity of skilled hands, largely in West Bengal and, in a smaller way, also in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Assam. As the temperature starts dipping in December, the sap is collected in an earthen pot tied to the tree under the bark, in which a slit is cut to collect the thick and gooey sap overnight, after which it goes through for further processing for commercial use the next morning.

Nolen Gur is available in two forms: Jhola gur, or liquid date palm jaggery, which is considered fresher and therefore more premium, and Patali gur, or the solidified version of date palm jaggery liquid, which is heated on a low flame to solidify. Unlike patali gur, which has a much longer shelf life, especially when refrigerated, liquid nolen gur has a shorter shelf life and is traditionally stored indoors in earthen containers, as the aroma and taste of the gur are likely to be spoiled by the lightest pollutants in the air.

Most of the nolen gur available in West Bengal is made in the Nadia district, and there are a few pockets like Majhdia village and the small town of Krishnanagar. I got lucky last December when I was on the road in rural Bengal thanks to a CSR book project, and as we passed via Krishnanagar, I saw a couple of vendors sitting on the side of the road, selling mounds of dark to golden brown date palm jaggery. On asking the driver of our cab, who lived in Kolkata, he enlightened us, saying that it was nolen gur season. He asked if he could stop and buy some nolen gur to bring home because it was the best grade available at that price.

And I dashed out of the car to get some for the house, filling the earthen container with as much solid patali gur and liquid jhola gur as my flight back to Hyderabad would allow. Needless to say, this was one of my most prized possessions in the kitchen, and the nolen gur tubes I had picked up at Kolkata airport from the Biswabangla store were a pale shadow of their country cousins, though the packaging was obviously more contemporary.

These days, the vendor told us about the rampant sale of adulterated versions of nolen gur, especially the versions sold in Kolkata with the addition of sugar and the remnants of sugar molasses. Nolen gur is expensive, being both seasonal and difficult to tap, and the best ones can sell for up to Rs. 600 a kg, as seen on some online stores.

While jaggery itself gets the nutritionist’s vote for its health benefits like immunity-boosting properties on account of being packed with anti-oxidants, date palm jaggery is considered a notch above for its rich magnesium and iron content. Nolen gur is enjoyed in Kolkata on its own, as a post-meal dessert, or even with rotis, breads, or parathas. But its most prevalent use is in desserts like sondesh, paayesh, rasgullas, and more.

Right at the top of my favourite nolen gur desserts list is Nolen Gur ice cream, which I first sampled at the restaurant Oh! Calcutta, which outsources it from a Kolkata-based ice cream company. And the date palm jaggery's delicate, caramelised smoky flavour infusing its own magical flavours completely wowed me. I declared aloud that this ice cream needed to be patented and copyrighted as soon as possible because it was so wonderful!

My other favourite nolen gur dessert is nolen gurer payesh, preferably made with the small-grained Gobindo bhog rice, which has its own pleasing aroma. After the rice is cooked with milk and reduced on a low flame, the cooked kheer is put off the flame, and then the nolen gur (liquid or grated jaggery) is added to it and mixed gently to add up to a beautifully caramelised shade. So subtle is the texture of nolen gur that adding it to the kheer, even on a low flame, might just curdle the dessert.

Like many others, I also like my nolen gur sondesh, which has two versions: the jol bhora, which has liquid jaggery right in the centre of the sweet; and the norom paak (a softer version) and the kadak paak, or the harder version.

The fact that I was able to obtain my supply of nolen gur sweets in Hyderabad from a sweet maker whose brand is called "Dilli" demonstrates how popular this seasonal delicacy is among the Bengali and now non-Bengali diasporas. Every year, from shortly after Diwali until February, I buy nolen gur rasgulla, kaancha gola, sondesh, and rasmalai too from here. The desserts are perfectly done and worth the wait, I must admit. The subtle aromas and the not-too-sweet taste of the pillowy-soft Rasmalai are made exactly how I like them.

I was so taken with its perfection that I couldn't help but ask the store manager if they had a Bengali "karigor" (craftsman). And I was ecstatic to learn that they even hire a temporary person from rural Bengal to make these specials because their local person, who is also a Bengali, just can't get that perfect taste.

To my mind, nolen gur is certainly one of West Bengal’s best contributions to the culinary world and ranks highest in the "Maach, Mishti, and More" scheme of things, personally speaking. Joynagar moa is a nolen gur sweet that I have yet to try. It is made of khoi (puffed rice) and nolen gur and originated in Joynagar, in the southern suburbs of Kolkata. It's one of the more unusual nolen gur desserts.

Let me try ordering some online; suggestions are welcome!