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Strange Bengali sugar stuff


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I picked up a jar of some type of sugar while in NY not too long ago. It is labeled as TAL MISHREE. It looks like a yellowish rock candy and has a very strange smell. Almost alchoholic. All the shopkeeper had to say was "good for stomach". It doesn't taste too bad. Sort of like fermented sugar mixed with car exhaust :biggrin:

Does anyone know what this is and where to use it?

Edward

Edited by Edward (log)

Edward Hamann

Cooking Teacher

Indian Cooking

edhamann@hotmail.com

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"Tal" = "palm" as in palm tree

"Mishree" = crystalized sugar, by default it means crystalized cane sugar

"Tal Mishree" = crystalized sugar made from palm. As to how the sugar is made, I have no idea. V. Gautam will most certainly know.

I actually have some of this stuff right now at home -- brought it back from my last visit to kolkata. When we were kids, we would be made to drink a cold syrup of this stuff (sugar slowly dissolved in cold water, left overnight). Supposed to be "good for your stomach". Sometimes "ishabgol" (which is like metamucil) would be added to this syrup.

You can also use this stuff wherever you would use sugar -- it has a distinct taste.

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Mishree I guess is another spelling of misri means sugar crystals, and I've sometimes seen it used for brown sugar crystals, as opposed to white sugar crystals which is chini. But there are lots of curiosities here. The etymology would seem to suggest that the products came to India from outside - 'chini' meaning Chinese or from China, while 'misri' is Egyptian or from Egypt (Misr is the Arab term for Egypt - its official name, I think, is Republic of Misr).

But food history says that sugarcane - which to complicate matters, seems to have originated in New Guinea, before spreading across Asia - was first refined in India, though its not clear if it was made into crystals. Its likely that it was made into jaggery, since that's what the traditional system of sugar making followed in India produces. Sugar crystals of the kind we use today, only seem to have been introduced much later - perhaps by those Chinese or Egyptians? Or was it the British?

On the other hand, there is the term khand, which today means rock sugar candy, and Achaya also notes another sugar product called matsyandika which literally means fish roe, but was probably indicative of a product that looked like that which could well have been crystalised sugar. Also, as the product that's the subject of this thread indicates, sugar crystals don't have to be from sugarcane. So maybe they were produced in India, but that makes the names even more confusing.

There may be writings that shed more light on this, and if anyone knows of them, please let us now. But the whole confusion is indicative of why we need more research and writing on Indian food. Achaya is there, and he is invaluable, but he's not always that clear and since he died a couple of years back, we're not going to get more clarity. There probably are academic writers on this, like Sinha, but many of them publish so obscurely you only get to know by accident.

Most irritating of all are the Western scholars who often just overlook non-Western traditions completely. The most annoying example (and part of the reason for this rant) I've come across recently is non-food related - a book called Empires of the Monsoon which billed itself as a history of the Indian Ocean, but entirely ignored the non-European histories of the region. It was more correctly a history of European conquest of the Indian Ocean.

And that's one criticism that I'd levy on a book that is otherwise a real classic of food scholarship - Mintz' 'Sweetness & Power', a study of sugar and its effect on history, colonialism, slavery and more. Its focus is the Caribbean, which is fair enough, but I really wish Mintz had tackled a bit of the origins of sugar in Asia, rather than just dismissing it in a few pages and footnotes,

Vikram

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"Tal" = "palm" as in palm tree

"Mishree" = crystalized sugar, by default it means crystalized cane sugar

"Tal Mishree" = crystalized sugar made from palm. As to how the sugar is made, I have no idea. V. Gautam will most certainly know.

My kitchen-bengali is not so good, but that is what I thought. I had just always thought of palm sugar as palm gur or the lighter colored thai variety. This stuff definitely has an unusual taste. Maybe it tastes alchoholic because it spoiled on its journey from Bangladesh?

Edward Hamann

Cooking Teacher

Indian Cooking

edhamann@hotmail.com

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i bought some palm jaggery from a sri lankan store,made up a syrup for easy usage and put the bottle away in a cupboard.the next time i reached for it(not too long i'm sure since i love the stuff!)it smelt distinctly high-not bad but maybe enroute to some good rum!the next batch i stored in the fridge and over the months the upper part of the bottle has grown beautiful,amber mishri.

all(liquid) palm jaggery that i've tasted seems to have that slighty volatile quality to it!

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  • 3 weeks later...

This site has an explanation of palm sugar.

palm sugar

I use palm sugar in sambals and in Asian sweet chile sauces, coconut based sauces, etc.

I try to find the creamy colored sugar, I like it better than the darker.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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  • 1 month later...

Laksa,

you are correct; mishri= rock sugar, recrystallized from raw sugar. In Bangladesh, sap from date or palmyra palm was boiled down to a caramelized form known as jaggery in Indian English, and gur/goor in the vernacular. Now, the traditional way to refine sugar from gur was to drain the latter of excess moisture, pack it in baskets and cover it with a layer of pondweed. Gur consists of a crystallisable fraction and a non-crystallisable fraction; the former would effloresce into raw sugar crystals on the surface of the gur just underneath the weed cap, while the non-crytallizable fraction would drain from the basket, due to the particular conditions created and maintained by the pondweed cap.

This latter sugar crystal fraction[~90-93% sucrose; modern refined sugar is minimum 96% sucrose], in eastern Bengal, was known as dholo. It could be subjected to adulteration. To guard against this, it was dissolved and recrystallized as rock sugar, the purest form known in traditional Bengal. This is what mishri means, rock sugar. Tal denotes its origin from palmyra. Now here is a twist; tal mishri is often really a form of 'dholo', or contains a fraction of dholo and is not totally the recrystallized product. the reasons for this are as complex and contrary as Bengal itself; please don't ask!!! :shock::laugh: .

Edited by v. gautam (log)
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Thanks V. Gautam.

This one has a faintly yellowish hue and is still a bit moist. The main thing that intrigues me about it is its very unusual fermented aroma. It smells unlike anything I have ever smelled.

Edward Hamann

Cooking Teacher

Indian Cooking

edhamann@hotmail.com

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That's because of all the unrefined fraction left in, allegedly to create tal mishri's distintive aroma, AND HEALTH-GIVING PROPERTIES[baloney] and so distinguish it from run-of-the-mill mishri. The Tal Gur Mahasangha, a palmyra gur cooperative in West Bengal, had many such semi-cockamamie sales ideas, and Bong probably will remember their stall/outlets in the unlikeliest of places, e.g right smack amidst busy tram lines in Gariahat!

In south-east asia, Gula Java/Melaka [note the same word 'gur'; also thai 'nam tan beep'= liquid/sap (nam) from tala (tan, palmyra); beep is pipa or barrel, Portuguese] can be manufactured from palmyra [there are entire island societies in Indonesia that subsist on palmyra sap as their primary source of carbohydrate; instead of meat and potatoes, think palm sap and fish!!];

The other interesting sugar palms of south-east Asia are Nypa fruticans and

Arenga saccharifera, the major sources for Malesian [sic] palm sugars.

In peninsular India, coconut and Corypha [the talipot palm, so-called because it actually provided the palm leaf for manuscripts, wrongly attributed to the palmyra or tala] also supply a part of the palm sugar used.

Edited by v. gautam (log)
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BTW, the Sanskrit for rock sugar, khanda =chunks, has given us our 'candy'; it is claimed that the ancient name for a part of Bengal, Gauda, is derived from the word 'guda', gur, illustrating the centrality of gur and sugar manufacture in the economy of Bengal. There is no doubt that sugar refining developed here [and I have spent 30 years of my life delving into the palm -rice economy of central Bengal] probably first in the world, but what do Bengalis call refined sugar but 'chini' or 'chinese stuff'.

Let me digress a bit further; whereas all the Asian sugar palms are harvested through a simple tapping of their inflorescence, or emerging flower bud, the sugar date palm of the sub-continent is the sole exception, requiring the sophisticated elaboration of a carefully contrived wound tissue. This was the outcome of far greater effort than mere serendipity, that is suggested in the tapping of a burgeoning flower bud. Sugar manufacture apparently received a lot of thought and effort in this benighted corner of the chiliocosm :wub:

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Dear Bong,

You are too kind to an utter idiot. But speaking of the palmyra, that ripens in August, did your family happen to enjoy the ripe pulp as hot fritters fried in mustard oil or the tala-kheera, the pulp congealed with a bit of slaked lime plus a soupcon of grated coconut and cane jaggery? Brings back many memories; Vidyapati hits the right note of pathos and melancholy with the lines “ e je bharaa baadara/ maaha Bhaadara/ sunya mandira mor-a”

[Once, with great hope, i tried the canned tala-shansh, the unripe locules of the palmyra fruit, but they tasted terrible. Have you tried this canned product? I was so disappointed, that i would not venture in the direction of canned ripe jackfruit; although the litchi/lychees in cans are not bad. One day an Indian acquaintance treated us to artificial lychees :shock: ]

Also, did you relish the kvath-bel [Feronia limonia, wood apple, kapithva], its aromatic sour, seedy pulp mashed with cane jaggery, salt, mustard oil and green chilies? :wub:

Edited by v. gautam (log)
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But speaking of the palmyra, that ripens in August, did your family happen to enjoy the  ripe pulp as  hot fritters fried in mustard oil or the tala-kheera, the pulp congealed with a bit of slaked lime plus a soupcon of grated coconut and cane jaggery? Brings back many memories; Vidyapati hits the right note of pathos and melancholy with the lines “ e je bharaa baadara/ maaha Bhaadara/ sunya mandira mor-a”

Is this the same thing as Taler bora? If so, then yes.

Also one of my favorite fruits was "Tal sansh" (literally, heart of palm) -- is this from the same palmyra plant or different?

Also, did you relish the kvath-bel  [Feronia limonia, wood apple, kapithva], its aromatic sour, seedy pulp mashed with cane jaggery, salt, mustard oil and green chilies? :wub:

Well, bel was never a fruit I really liked.... but we did use to have "pora beler shorbot" (juice made from a the roasted pulp of bel).

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the kvath-bel [Feronia ] is not the same as the yellow, true bael [Aegle marmelos]. The stuff i am referring to is encased in a hard, whitish fruit like a bel, but when ripe its interior is dark brown with many tiny seeds about as big as tomato seeds. probably more prevalent in rural areas.

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[Once, with great hope, i tried the canned tala-shansh, the unripe locules of the palmyra fruit, but they tasted terrible. Have you tried this canned product? I was so disappointed, that i would not venture in the direction of canned ripe jackfruit; although the litchi/lychees in cans are not bad. One day an Indian acquaintance treated us to artificial lychees :shock:
Gautam, I tried the canned tal-sansh and had the same reaction as you did. The canned stuff is evil. God, I havent had fresh tal-sansh in many many years.

Out here in California, we are lucky enough to get fresh lychees (called "lichoo" in Bengali) in our local Chinese grocery during the summer. And fresh jackfruit (both green and ripe) too! I dont like ripe jackfruit ("kanthaal") that much, though.

Also, did you relish the kvath-bel  [Feronia limonia, wood apple, kapithva], its aromatic sour, seedy pulp mashed with cane jaggery, salt, mustard oil and green chilies? :wub:

Well, bel was never a fruit I really liked.... but we did use to have "pora beler shorbot" (juice made from a the roasted pulp of bel).

BTW, this just struck me now that you meant what we used to call "kawth"-bel. Sorry, I was an idiot and somehow read it as "kaath-bel" (is there even such a thing?). Yes, yes I do remember this kvath bel- we used to have an "achaar" made out of it, just like you describe.

Yum.

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