A walk in any local market in Myanmar presents interesting aromas and colorful displays of local fare, from fruits and local preparations to packets and open heaps of small bite sized pieces of jaggery. The pale gold semi-circular pieces are served as dessert after meals in restaurants, as snack in teashops, and as candy to fill in the long gaps between meals. It is interesting to find this small piece leave a pleasant, lingering aftertaste, long after it has been digested. Unlike anything one may have tasted, jaggery is an unrefined sweet made out of palm toddy in Myanmar and other tropical countries.
Jaggery has caught the attention of nutritionists and health professionals who have seen the damage caused by refined white sugar. As an unrefined natural sweetener, that is a food in itself, jaggery retains all the vitamins and minerals found in the sap of palm trees called toddy. Its earthy, caramelized taste comes from the cooking of sap in iron utensils, till it thickens, after which it is poured into moulds and cooled. An estimated 80 million kilograms of jaggery is produced every season, and it finds its way into homes and cuisines all over the world.
Jaggery is also made out of sugarcane juice, that is squeezed out of the long bamboo like cane fruit with the aid of machines. It has to be similarly cooked to thicken and is then cooled and sold in bigger chunks. Countries like India have a rich harvest of sugarcane, which is divided between making jaggery and refined sugar. Cane jaggery is a deeper gold in color due to the darker color of the cane juice, unlike palm toddy which is white and translucent. Palm jaggery however, is healthier, richer in minerals and a better taste with a slight caramelized saltiness.
The jaggery making process
Jaggery making is one of the significant rural based cottage industries in Asian countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Requiring minimal capital investment without mechanization or expensive refining involved, it is labor intensive and hence a source of employment, which helps alleviate families out of poverty. Not without risks, the key skill required is tree climbing to collect sap and the returns in the form of earnings are dwindling, leading to a reduction in the number of tappers left in Myanmar.
Jaggery is made out of the sap collected from palm trees. Palms have been known to be the oldest flowering plants since the beginning of civilization, and tapped for centuries to intercept the sugar before it reaches the fruit and its non-edible parts. The palm family, Arecaceae, has many species that produce enough sap that can be converted into sugar and jaggery, though Palmyra palms, coconut and date palms are tapped the most. The sap is called sweet toddy due to its high sucrose content (between 10-20%), and the palm trees get to be called toddy palms.
Palm trees are found in central Myanmar which is also the dry zone. Large toddy farms spread over hundreds of acres in Mandalay’s Kyautpadaung township and Magwe’s Yanangyaung, Chauk and Yesagyo townships. The trees grow in groves and are ready with rich sap after fifteen years of maturity. The tall trees produce so much sap that it can be collected twice a day, and the process has to continue on a daily basis or else the sap flow will diminish and eventually stop. The process then has to be started from scratch, which can take up to two weeks. To harvest the sap, bamboo ladders are tied to the palm tress that rise to be 25-30 meters high. The first step of tapping is to cut the leaves, make deep cuts on the tree trunk, and hang clay pots into which the sap collects over the day. Multiple pots are hung on each tree and these are collected and replaced at least twice a day. Collection time is generally around 5-6 am every morning and then around 3 pm in the afternoon. The harvesting season lasts for eight months in the year in Upper Myanmar, while central Myanmar trees can be tapped all year around albeit with a period of low productivity between November and June.
The quantity collected also depends on the agility and expertise of the worker. Typically workers are able to climb 25-50 trees in a day, and an average of 5 liters per tree is collected daily. Toddy sells for approximately 1000 kyat per viss (equivalent to 1.6 kg).
The clay pots are first lined with slacked lime to delay the fermentation process since the sap has a short shelf life. It can be preserved at room temperature for a maximum of 24 hours, or a bit more, if refrigerated. Tappers carry back multiple pots after climbing 25-50 trees per session, twice a day. At home, fireplaces are kept ready to The sap is then filtered and lime sedimentation removed before it is transferred to iron pots and placed on high heat. The fuel typically used in rural areas, close to the palm trees, is bean husk, cow dump and chipped palm leaves. Being rich in moisture, it has to be cooked for 3 hours to get rid of the water content, remove the frothy white scum that appears on top, and then allow it to thicken. Adding a bit of oil prevents crystallization and small round balls are made while it is still hot.
Palm jaggery can be used to make refined white sugar, which is higher in price, but this inferior in quality to cane sugar, and hence has low demand. Jaggery is a part of the common man’s diet while white sugar considered a luxury. Of late, the demand for organic palm jaggery is increasing in international markets. Companies like the 555 Shwe hintha Company, have been promoting their brand Royal Jaggery, and have begun their exports to Japan.
Myanmar’s palm jaggery
Some of the traditional Myanmar candies include round pieces of jaggery mixed with tamarind, coconut and jaggery candy and of course, lemon flavored jaggery candy.
Famous domestically as Myanmar’s chocolate, jaggery is an all day snack savoured by young and old alike. Than Nyat Khe, its Myanmar name, has become a craze of late even among the country’s expatriate community, thanks to the innovative efforts of a medical graduate, who decided to make bite sized pieces of jaggery to prevent wastage of chunks offered, which were always too sweet and too big to finish, and even added local organic ingredients like coconut, ginger, lemon, mint and yoghurt. Ma Cho Lei Aung, started her brand Tree Food in September 2015 to promote bite sized pieces of jaggery in artistically self- designed paper bags, and catch the eye of the youth all over again. Jaggery had in recent times, lost out to imported candies which are not even healthy options. The natural earthy goodness of jaggery delicately flavored, has, thanks to her efforts, become popular and gaining ground all over Myanmar, and is one of the top Myanmar specialties carried back home by tourists. Today it is not only a great souvenir, it is back as an integral part of Myanmar’s identity.
Constraints in jaggery production
Palm tapping is considerably reduced and there are fears of it being a dying cottage industry. This is due to various constraints not entirely attributable to economic growth and development, offering alternative employment with higher earning potential even in rural areas. Families that were once content with their earnings of 10,000 kyat a day from selling 40-50 kilograms of jaggery per day, now prefer employment in hotels and restaurants in the vicinity which multiply the family earnings at least three times when three members go to work. Additionally, they have access to a cleaner safer life, without having to climb 25-30 trees a day, risking falls, injuries and sometimes even death. The end result has been a decline of 50% in the last five years, and an estimated 5 million trees are left today. The rest have been cut and sold for paltry sums, and in some cases, the land has been sold off as well.
Health benefits of palm jaggery
The current trends of high blood sugar levels and ensuing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, refined white sugar is best avoided from an early age. But that does not mean giving up on all sweets. Organic sweets like palm jaggery have a long list of health benefits. A low glycemic index, totally natural and high fiber and mineral content, palm jaggery aids digestion, has a cooling effect, clears the respiratory tract, and provides energy with its richness in iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus.
A general awareness about eating healthy has made the masses turn towards organic, natural foods and avoid processed ones. Products like jaggery fit into this category, providing energy and nutrients without any harmful side effects, not even weight gain, despite being sweet. At the macro level cottage industries like jaggery production offer a viable self employment route, a way out of poverty, a source of daily earning and an opportunity to a better life despite the risks. The Myanmar government is also stepping in to help improve the condition of the country’s toddy farmers, by providing loans and technical assistance, modern climbing equipment that reduces risk of injury and fatal falls. The farmers are also being offered expertise to grown new, healthier palm trees, and set up mechanized jaggery making processes for more hygienic products.