The things you discover when you reorganise you pantry; in my case, Jaggery. Big, huge, nuggets of dark brown, unrefined, cane sugar. I don’t recall when I bought it or what I intended to use it for, but with a looming expiry date, it had to be put to good use soon.
Jaggery is the sugar for traditional Indian sweets. The flavour ranges from fruity to caramel or treacly depending on the depth of colour. It is addictive stuff. If you are a fan of molasses/black treacle or muscovado sugar, then jaggery will only bring you joy. Indeed I think my hedonistic appreciation for earthy coloured sugars stems from my love of jaggery.
My Odlay Mai (maternal grandmother) made steamed aris, a thick rice based batter, flattened on a banana leaf, filled with freshly grated coconut (sometimes flavoured with cardamom), sweetened with jaggery, wrapped in the leaf and steamed. Utter bliss! I also would visit a Brahmin (upper caste Hindu) friend’s house, specifically to have a couple of their Belum (jaggery in malayalam) Kapi (coffee). Her mother was very aware of the fact, but far too flattered to tell me off! Incidentally, brahmin food, which is completely vegetarian, is one of the best I have ever experienced. To date. End of.
Let me add too, that jaggery is known for it’s good iron, magnesium and potassium content, and combined with sesame seeds in this recipe, it’s a powerhouse for your red blood cells. At least, that’s the story I am sticking with. It’s is also a mainstay, a cheap source of nutrition for the very poor. The use of jaggery, from what I read, is declining, due to the increase in ‘Western’ style, white sugar, based baking. It’s a pity, but that’s the way the wheel turns.
Here, I give you a bog standard recipe for Indian sweetie, Chikki, so widely available that no one really makes it anymore. More’s the pity, it’s so easy. If you can’t get a hold of jaggery, then use any dark sugar you like. Indeed, white sugar works here too but you will miss the complexity and depth of flavour that can only come from an unrefined sugar source. I believe the Greeks have a version of this with honey and peanuts, the arabs do too with cardamom and sesame seeds, and in the West, it’s called brittle. I have seen black sesame seeds used the same way on Chinese/Malay cuisine. As common as it is, it’s that unifying quality I love about food. At least in that one regard, none can deny that we are all pretty much the same. Just maybe a different kinda nut!
Here I used regular white sesame seeds and another batch with black sesame seeds. All you do, is melt a bit of butter, bung in your chopped up jaggery into a pan and let it caramelise, reaching the hard crack stage at 160deg C. Do this on a low-medium heat, since there is no added water to temper the speed at which the sugar caramelises. You do not want this to start to smoke. It’s not a disaster, but that smoky note pervades the finished article and it is not desirable in this case. Can you tell that I am speaking from experience?
When it hits the mark, pour in your toasted seed/nut of choice and mix as quickly as you can, pouring it into a greased pan. It will start hardening immediately. You might not be able to coat every single seed but surely there are more important things to worry about. Flatten it out (I used a greased offset flat spatula) as best you can and leave to cool completely. Then you can either cut into thin, long slices, as I have eaten it, or crack it and have magnificent, copper coloured, transparent shards of caramelly nut. The chikki is brittle, with a good crack, isn’t hard on the teeth and soooo dang good to eat! Another option; if you don’t want it so brittle and would prefer it a bit softer and chewier, then take the caramel only to 120 deg C. Peanuts work very well in either case too. You could vary the ratio of nut to jaggery should you want it more sweet or more nutty. It’s that flexible. Your choice. I don’t mind. Really.
What surprised me the most was the difference in flavour of the seeds. The black ones were the same taste note as the white, but much earthier, stronger and the look of the shiny, smooth topped, translucent black colour of the sweetie had a dangerous attractiveness to it. I cannot say which one I preferred most. It yo-yoed between which one I was chomping on at the time.
So take this and make it your own. It will catch your eye in a glass jar in the corner of the counter and offer a perk when the day gets a bit rough. Or make to share with friends or to bring a smile to a hostess’s lips. You’ll be guaranteed a return invite!