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| Sunday, March 17, 2013 |

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A sweeter edge

Nalen gur can make many desserts taste divine but it can also give an intriguing twist to several main courses, says Rahul Verma

  • Pan seared chicken with date palm jaggery risotto

W hen winter takes its last bow for the year, I start feeling a little nostalgic about all that it takes away with itself. The one thing I miss the most is a delicious Indian sweet called daulat ki chaat. It's prepared with the foam of milk in the colder months — mostly between Diwali and Holi — for the dessert can't survive the heat. And another thing I miss is nalen gur, which is used in a great many delicious Bengali sweets — from payesh and patishapta to rasgulla and sandesh.

Nalen gur is the wonderful date palm jaggery that the East exults in. I love it too. And that's not just because of the crucial role it plays in Bengali sweets. I am also greatly impressed by the way it has started cropping up in our entres.

Niladri Chakraborty, corporate chef, The Sonnet, Calcutta, doesn't just use the warm and treacle-like molasses in his poached pears with date palm jaggery infused rice pudding or his doodh puli, which he prepares with coconut, rice flour, flour, milk, sugar, raisins, cashew nuts and nalen gur. What I find more interesting is that he enhances his sauce with molasses in his spinach and ricotta timbale with nutty cream and date palm jaggery.

  • Poached pears with date palm jaggery infused rice pudding

"It's far better than any other gur," stresses the chef when I, with some trepidation, ask him why he doesn't use other kinds of jaggery. In my neck of the woods — which is Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh — gur is produced from sugarcane juice. I loved it as a child, and still remember the taste of gur eaten with a glass of milk. But chef Niladri maintains that it's the nalen gur that really enhances the taste of food: everything else pales in comparison.

Other chefs too have been cooking with nalen gur. I remember in particular a dish that chef Chiranjib Chatterjee of Ambuja-Neotia Hospitality had once cooked. He had pan seared foie gras with balsamic vinegar and molasses, and served it with toasted bread.

The chefs stress that the gur goes particularly well with pork and chicken. Both chef Niladri and chef Joymalya Banerjee, the owner of the Calcutta restaurant Bohemian, do a mean chicken dish with nalen gur. The former pan sears the chicken which he serves with date palm jaggery risotto, while the latter makes a simple dish with strips of chicken.

"I saut the strips with chopped onion and garlic and some crushed cumin. Then I add lemon juice and green chilli paste, and a little bit of cooking cream. Finally I toss it with nalen gur," chef Joymalya says.

I know that some purists will balk at the thought of adding nalen gur to main dishes. But, as chef Joymalya points out, honey is used in all kinds of cuisine — from Continental to Oriental and Mediterranean. And let's not forget that the word molasses is derived from the Portuguese word mela, which in turn comes from the Latin mel, or honey. "So why can't our food also have the taste and flavour of gur in it," he asks.

I can't argue with that — especially since I am all for adding a bit of sweetness to a salted dish. The sweet touch, to my mind, sharpens the flavours. But nalen gur, says chef Niladri (a card-holding member of the nalen gur lovers' club, as you can tell), works so much better than plain sugar.

"Sugar gives you sweetness, but it doesn't add flavours to your food," he says. "It has its typical earthy flavour," agrees chef Joymalya, while adding that within nalen gur too there are different tastes and flavours. "Depending on the soil, the time of harvest and other factors, the tastes vary," he explains.

Clearly, when it comes to nalen gur, our chefs go all ecstatic. But I can't really blame them — the gur indeed is extraordinarily delicious.

"Nalen gur is the king of gurs," says chef Niladri reverentially. Long live the king, say I.

Baked Sea Bass with Cayenne Pepper and Date Palm Jaggery Emulsion

(serves 1)

Ingredients:

200g sea bass filletl 1 tsp cayenne pepper 3 bay leaves 1 tsp lime juice salt to taste 25ml refined oil 2 dill sprigs 2 asparagus spears 4 tbs jaggery (date palm) 20gm butter 3 tsp fish stock fennel fronds and tops (for garnish)

Method:

Preheat an oven to 220C and marinate the fish with lime juice, chopped fennel and salt. Slit the fillet and stuff with fresh date palm jaggery, chopped dill and half of the cayenne pepper. Cover the fillet with aluminium foil lined with the bay leaves and bake for 20 minutes. Make an emulsion of butter, jaggery, fish stock and cayenne pepper, whisking them together. Saut the asparagus spears in butter. Serve the fish with jaggery-cayenne emulsion and butter glazed asparagus.