BENGALURU: Swaying gaily in hot and humid coastal Karnataka are the tall, single-stemmed, evergreen palmyra trees, known for their fruit and sap. While the fruit, commonly called ‘ice apple’, is a favourite, little is known about the sap. It’s in this sap that the secret to a healthier life rests.
For decades, Bantwal taluk in Dakshina Kannada has seen purpose in switching from sugarcane jaggery to a healthier option, taking the ‘Ole Bella’ route. The concept of ‘ole bella’ or palm jaggery goes back ages, though its health benefits have slowly started gaining credence today.
Anand Salian, an agriculturalist from Bantwal, has been producing ole bella for 21 years, following in his father’s footsteps. But over the years, the tradition is being forgotten. “Most youngsters in our village aren’t interested in making jaggery, opting for city jobs. Our village now has just four of us who continue the ole bella tradition,” says Salian, adding that the procedure is long and strenuous, making the younger generation unenthused.
Rising early in the morning, Anand and his fellow tappers set out to extract the sweet sap from palmyra trees. The sap is collected in earthen pots, which are varnished with slaked lime to ensure their content does not ferment. Once the juice is collected, it is filtered and boiled in large aluminium vessels for 5-6 hours. When the sap begins to thicken, a tinge of coconut oil is added.
Meanwhile, the tappers prepare for the final procedure. Laying a wet cloth or mat on the floor, half-an-inch round moulds – also made from palmyra leaves – are spread out. The liquid is then poured into these moulds, and left to dry which thickens for 20 minutes. After that 24 of these pieces of jaggery are tied together with palm leaves.
Umesh Neralpalke, another farmer, says that despite the long process, the demand for palm jaggery has been increasing across the country. “People now prefer ole bella to sugarcane jaggery, owing to its medicinal benefits and organic content,” he says.
The jaggery that is made by small farmers like Salian and Neralpalke is pure and free from preservatives. Owing to its purity, ole bella also costs higher than sugarcane jaggery. A pack of 24 ole bella pieces is sold at Rs 1,500-2,000.
This homemade product is sold directly to people who place orders in Belthangady, Kaup, Mangaluru, Udupi, and other parts of Dakshina Kannada. Salian and Neralpalke also receive orders from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala and Dubai. “Customers personally reach out to us with orders and we courier the jaggery,” says Salian. While big markets in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru sell palm jaggery, farmers in Dakshina Kannada claim that store-bought palm jaggery is filled with chemicals to increase shelf life (ole bella cannot be stored for more than one month without preservatives).
Babu Poojary, the owner of Swarna Shop in Bantwal, sells ole bella. He runs a wholesale shop, collecting ole bella from farmers. Once ole bella is brought to the shop, it must be kept on hearths to keep it warm. Poojary says that when he constructed his shop 38 years ago, he built a hearth to stack ole bella. It is sold in packs of 24 and not separately. However, he sometimes does sell a single piece for Rs 100 to the sick, who cannot afford the entire pack. At other times, there are people who directly approach farmers to buy the jaggery. Salian says pharmacies in Dakshina Kannada directly approach him to buy ole bella for their customers.
The locals know best
Residents of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada are active consumers of ole bella. Archana, a resident of Moodbidri, says her family has been using it for years. “We have always used it in our diet. Diabetics can use it as a healthy alternative to sugar, as it does not spike blood sugar levels. When I prepare sweet delicacies for my 90-year-old mother, ole bella always comes in handy,” says Archana, who is the HoD of the Food and Nutrition Department at Alva’s Degree College. She affirms that the jaggery acts as an immunity booster too. “Post-Covid, people faced a massive blow in terms of immunity. A little bit of ole bella in the diet helps,” she concludes.
Experts opine that, unlike other jaggeries, palm jaggery is loaded with nutrients like iron, folate, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Dietician Radhika Pratip Dhar notes that palm jaggery helps alleviate anaemia by raising haemoglobin levels. It also has a low glycaemic index, making it useful for diabetic and renal patients. The potassium content boosts heart health and relieves period cramps; and the magnesium aids the central nervous system. It also helps address constipation, indigestion and water retention in the body. Moreover, a little bit of palm jaggery also protects pregnant women from anaemia.
Two types of Palmyra trees exist - Kombu and Irulu
Kombu is the male tree that produces sap
Irulu is the female tree that bears the fruit
Thesap collected between September and April