Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Making unrefined sugar - visit to a cottage industry

Almost every holiday we spend in my parents place, at Namakkal, we get to drink fresh squeezed sugar cane juice from either of the many 'aalai'  (small industry that makes unrefined sugar) where vellam (jaggery) and the popular 'Salem sarkkarai' or 'Naatu sarkarai' is produced. My father's friends and his clients will send home  the juice to which chilli, ginger and juice of lime has been added in stainless steel containers and urge that we consume before that ferments. All of us like the juice and will look forward to more.

In the nearby villages agriculture is the mainstay of the rural people. Crops like groundnuts, onions, sugarcane, tapioca and banana are grown. The sugar cane in the area is grown with the water that comes from the Cauvery. The irrigation system consists of underground pipelines that brings water about 20 km from the river bed. Also, these areas were dry until a good while ago, it is only now, that they are growing cash crops in the area.Sugarcane here is used for the manufacture of  jaggery, while most of the produce is sent to nearby sugar factories located in the district. also the bagasse is sent to the paper mill nearby.

Jaggery production has been a cottage industry for many years that I remember we used to smell the sweet aroma of the boiling sugarcane extract while travelling through the villages.Though we could not physically see the 'aalai' we would sense it nearby. This time we took a trip to Jedarpalyam, near Namakkal visiting one such 'aalai'. The owner Mr. Ravi and his family generously obliged to show us around.

The process is quite simple, but for the people who toil in the heat of the furnace, stirring the mass and then gathering in the right size of an odd sphere - conical shape while warm it is quite a job. 

There were a few small units there and two were working when we visited. one of them was in the process of making the vellam while the other was producing the cane sugar. With the power supply being erratic, they were running the cane crushers on generators and hence the limit to the running units.

The sugar cane is passed through the crusher and the juice is collected in drums that are cover with sack to strain the juice. Small quantity of sodium -bi-carbonate has been added in the drum to cleanse further. This juice is transferred to another drum after another round of straining.

This second drum is fitted with an outlet hose which drains directly into large circular flat pans with rims that are about half foot tall. This pan sits stoutly on the furnace. The furnace is fed with the dried bagasse and some splinters from trees. The heat is kept steady and the juice boils down to a syrup. The time is adjusted in accordance to the requirement - whether it will be rolled in jaggery or will be stirred until powdered cane sugar. They have a very innovative pulley and rope arrangement to drain the boiled syrup on to a clean wooden platform. While a man holds strongly at the rope and balances the weight of the tilted pan, another person quickly brushes the residual liquid onto the platform while two or three others assist by holding the pan in position.

The drained syrup is continuously stirred with wooden ladles that have long poles for handle and is allowed to cool down. Again the required thickness is determined and the effort is timed accordingly.
Prior to dropping the liquid on the platform some amount of soda is sprinkled on the platform too.
In earlier years people used lime for this refining process, but in modern times the soda bi carb has replaced the lime. Apart from this almost negligible quantity of the chemical, no preservative is added during the process.

When the correct consistency has been achieved by stirring and cooling the mass, the men and women work on the shaping of the vellam. It is first hand rolled and quickly transferred to clean white material cut to measurement and rolled within by squeezing the edge tight. Neat and uniformly shaped vellem emerges from within the cloth which is then stacked in a neat and orderly manner.

On the other board, the boiling time is slightly altered and the stirring is more laborious in order to allow the mass to become lump free but coarse powder. When the cooling is complete, the mass is pushed to the centre of the wooden platform and is then transferred for storing.

Earlier during our visit to Badami, we witnessed that the sugarcane fields there were ready for harvest and the guide passed some very commendable information that I think I must share. Since hand harvesting of sugarcane is fairly new in Karnataka and there are skilled labours in Mahrashtra, the landowners hire them. They have to move family as the women also are hired. In order that their children do not miss out on education, tutors are hired along with every few units, paid extra and aid the schooling. This India is what we shall be proud of.

Sugar in any form is not healthy. However, the unrefined sugar undergoes less chemical absorption changes and is fairs better on that scale. The sweetness of the vellam depends on how good the cane has been; since no preservatives are added in the manufacturing process, it is best consumed sooner for over the period of time fermentation will occur.

We took home some jaggery and a 2 litre bottle of cane juice and many pictures. Few dishes I have used jaggery to prepare are adhirasam, aval pittu, adai payasam, kamarkhat, manoharam , pittu and more.



  1. Lata informative posts and I have seen this on a news channel, its really amazing to see how they do jaggery :) thanks for sharing

  2. very interesting process... hats off to all the works who make this yummy sugar...
    Ghee Rice

  3. interesting post..

  4. Wat a beautiful post, have seen many time in my grandma's village and never failed to tasted the hot jaggery.

  5. It was lovely to get this virtual tour of how vellam is made... thank you.

  6. Wonderful post and awesome pictures.

  7. Lata one of my favourite posts to date! :-)
    Have heard about the process from friends but this was truly lovely.

  8. This is such a visual feast! I've seen quite a few posts on jaggery making, wish I can see it for myself one day. I thought commercial jaggery makers added sulphur? I didn't know about the soda bicarb.

    1. Sra, does this give me a chance to invite you to Namakkal next time I am there?
      I am not sure about the commercial process; sulphur may be, but I had confirmed with these people that it was soda and that is when they told me about the lime.

    2. Yes, please. Though I don't know why I am accepting - I have so many invitations, so many plans to go here and there but no clue when I'll have the time to turn them into action!!! :-D

  9. Wonderful post! And great effort sorting the pictures and explaining the process to bring it live to our eyes :)

  10. thanx 4 dis post....reat.....nice blog..
    BTW visit my space if gets sum time n check out my new facebook page dear..

  11. Very good post Lataji, It is really nice to know about the people who work really hard to make this.

  12. Nice, informative post, Lata. You've made me appreciate the amount of work that goes into each ball of jaggery sold at supermarkets.

  13. When we pass through the villages Amma used to tell me about the sugar factories out there. But I never had an opportunity to see them and appreciate. These pictures speak for themselves. Thanks so much to you and Niki for taking us on a educational tour. I feel so happy to that vellam is made in its most natural form without any chemicals. I hope other villages and factories follow their footprint and create a safer food for all of us to devour. And this post gives me an idea for something I was planning to do.


  14. Hi Lata!

    Thanks for sharing your I know what comes to my table...loved reading your blog..puts an end to some curiosity..

    Delhi Foodies' Zone

  15. Hi guys... Am from the village near Jedarplayam.. We also use to make Jaggery with the same process :-) ... and the place which is shown above is near to my place and Mr.Ravi is well known family friend of mine :-) thanks for sharing :-)

  16. And by seeing this post am proud to shout that am from same village and doing the same process :-)thank you Lata mam :-)


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Thanks once again,
Lata Raja.