Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal
Jaggery is an unrefined dark brown sugar, made from palm sap or sugarcane. The word jaggery comes from the Portuguese jágara, and from the Malayalam chakkara and Sanskrit sarkara (gritty substance, sugar) before that; its first known use was in 1631.
For the relaunch of DesiLit Magazine, we wanted to choose a new, more evocative, name — a name that evoked South Asia, but also the shared colonial history of South Asian nations and the contribution that South Asian languages have made to English, the primary language of our journal.
We considered many options, such as calico, juggernaut, pyjama, teak — there are hundreds of words that have immigrated to English from a variety of South Asian languages. Some of the words were problematic — mango, for example, has been sadly overused for South Asia in general (and for South Asian women and their breasts in particular). Cashmere holds connotations of wealth and privilege that we thought it best to avoid. Bangle feels explicitly feminine, or possibly queer, and while we’re certainly open to such writing, we don’t plan to exclusively focus on it.
Jaggery, though, offers a treasure of richly relevant significance. Jaggery is often used in place of refined sugar as a more accessible, cheaper, and healthier sweetener. In colonial times, it was the choice of the poor (which was almost everyone brown, relatively speaking) — those who had no access to the refined sugar of the colonizers could still sweeten their lives with jaggery.
It’s used in both sweet and savory dishes; a pinch of jaggery is sometimes added to sambar, dal, and other Indian staples — a sweet element balancing the spicy, salty and sour components. Jaggery contains many minerals not found in ordinary sugar, and is considered beneficial to health by the traditional Ayurvedic medical system.
Jaggery is also life-giving, and soul-sustaining. In rural Maharashtra and Karnataka, water and a piece of jaggery are given when someone comes home from working under a hot sun. All over India, jaggery has religious significance; many festivals involve the offering of jaggery to deities during worship. Jaggery is considered auspicious in many parts of South Asia, and is eaten raw before the commencement of good work or any important new venture, or after good news is shared by family and friends.
In my childhood, jaggery was precious, something my immigrant mother couldn’t easily get, that she hoarded for rare use. It came molded in dark brown, hard hemispheres of sugar, and I was addicted to the taste. As a little girl, I would sneak into the kitchen at night to carve off pieces with a knife — tiny chunks, in the hopes that she wouldn’t catch me. I would put the fragments on my tongue, close my eyes, and luxuriate in their brief, intense flavor, before they dissolved completely, leaving me hungering for more.
For many of us in the diaspora, our connection to our home cultures can feel similarly fragmentary, shattered, evanescent. I write about Sri Lanka again and again, in an effort to connect with, to understand, the country that gave birth to me. We hesitated about choosing a food term for the magazine, since food is in some ways such a cliché referent to the exotic, the alien. But food is also one of the most direct paths home for the immigrant, the descendant, who pores over fragmentary notes in old cookbooks, trying to reconstruct the flavors of generations past.
Perhaps Jaggery will offer a path of connection between diaspora writers and homeland writers; we also welcome non-South Asians with a deep and thoughtful connection to South Asian countries, who bring their own intersecting perspectives to the conversation. Our hope with Jaggery is to create a journal that offers the best writing by and about South Asians and their diaspora. Dark, complex, intense — and hopefully delicious.
— Mary Anne Mohanraj, Editor-in-Chief
NOTE: Jaggery was relaunched in January 2013, publishing three times / year.