Danish Diaries – Slik to Madhu

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Danish Diaries – Slik to Madhu

It is a well-known saying that we become what we eat. The food that we consume becomes the building blocks of energy for what we do every day and that in turn shapes the way we are today. Food, on the other hand, is affected by various factors such as geography, climate, ability to cultivate, and so on with the ability to import in the more recent history. To simplify this complicated sentence, it means an Indian – loving dishes like coconut curry and fish fry and a Dane being in the comfort zone of rye bread and bacon has a lot to do with culture and lifestyle. In my journey of understanding links in food between the countries and Denmark and India, I originally was sceptic of finding a bridge when considering the factors that affect consumption, but to my surprise there was one that was easily identifiable.

Given the intense love for the candies, chocolate, desserts and so on (broadly slik and kage) in Danish culture, it stands to reason that there is a history of sweetness in the country. Molasses or black treacle is the thick by-product of refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. It is not surprising that people tend to have a very visceral reaction to molasses and it joins the list of an acquired taste. Generally, one is not acquainted with molasses in everyday life as it was used prior to the introduction of sugar specially with the bulk trade which came to Denmark in 1374. Molasses being a key ingredient in the production of rum was highly valued by the Danish colonial rule and had catapulted Denmark into the map after 1755. Currently, Europe uses sugar beets to derive its most of its molasses and is said to be an alternative to sugar in many instances.

My fascination with this sticky mess in Denmark began after my love affair with the rye bread. An interesting conversation occurred when she was teaching me to bake bread and informed me that molasses is used in making rye bread or even in the production of sourdough and yeast. The trademark dark rye bread had molasses as its secret ingredient! This also extended to cookies and cakes with molasses. As a part of my initiation into a lot of things Danish, I had the chance of tasting molasses when I visited a friend’s home for Easter. The taste reminded me very much of jaggery back in India. As a dutiful daughter, I called my mother to ask her if molasses forms a part of jaggery. The link clicked. Jaggery is defined as “the product obtained on concentrating the sweet juices of sugarcane with or without prior purification of juice, into a solid or semi-solid state”. It is also called as bella in south India. Essentially jaggery is a concentrated product of date, cane juice, or palm sap without separation of the molasses and crystals, and can vary from golden brown to dark brown in colour. These have distinctive taste and like the molasses, it needs getting used to. My earliest memories of jaggery are in sweets like the payasa and bella unde (balls of puffed rice or sesame seeds mixed with liquid jaggery). To this day, jaggery is regularly used as a sweetener in sweet and savoury dishes in my home. Yes, it may seem odd but if one must spice up the heat in the sambar, jaggery does the trick.

Another similarity that struck me while digging deeper into molasses and jaggery were the health benefits associated with it. Beet molasses is about 50% sugar by dry weight, predominantly sucrose, but also contains significant amounts of glucose and fructose. Beet molasses is limited in biotin (Vitamin H or B7) for cell growth, hence, it may need to be supplemented with a biotin source. The non-sugar content includes many salts, such as calcium, potassium, oxalate, and chloride. Jaggery contains iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Additionally, it contains reducing sugars including glucose and fructose with protein and fat.

If I were to truly say that I was in Denmark, then I should have had liquorice. Liquorice – both word and plant are of ancient origin, 3rd century, dating back to Greek and Romans. The word ’liquorice’ is a corruption of the Greek word glykyrrhiza, meaning ’sweet root’, and which, in turn, is itself derived from the Greek glukos (sweet) and riza (root). A wide variety of liquorice sweets are produced around the world. Dutch and Nordic liquorice characteristically contains ammonium chloride instead of sodium chloride, prominently so in salty liquorice. The essential ingredients of liquorice confectionery are liquorice extract, sugar, and a binder. The base is typically starch/flour, gum arabic, gelatin or a combination of the same. Additional ingredients are extra flavouring, beeswax for a shiny surface, ammonium chloride and molasses.

Why should licorice stand out to an Indian? The answer is simple, its taste. The very first time I ate licorice was during my introduction week in the university. We were given the licorice pipes with the warning that we may or may not like what we are putting in our mouth. Just as it was expected, I loved the taste and my neighbour from Hong Kong hated it. The best part was that the taste was extremely familiar to me. Being relatively new to Denmark then, I was unable to wrap my head around the question of why the taste stood out and was equally relatable. Research yielded an answer to that. The liquorice plant and its extract is commonly used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Commonly known as Yashtimadhu, Jeshtamadhu, Mulethi or Athimadhuram in various parts of India, the stem and root of the plant are used for its medicinal value.

It is highly likely that we relate medicine with sickness and hence a negative image of the things related to it. Despite this fact, this root is a gentle relaxant and soothes mucous irritations. Liquorice is beneficial to treat eczema, skin rashes, psoriasis, and itchy and dry skin. It is valued chiefly for its sweet taste and in masking the sharpness/pungency/taste of other remedies. Ayurveda recommends the root as beneficial in the treatment of coughs, colds, and other bronchial irritations. It goes without saying that any sweet Ayurveda medicines that I have consumed in my life would definitely have liquorice in it.

William Shakespeare wrote in his play, Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and this applies in this instance. I may live 7,256 kilometers away from my hometown on a different continent with a new culture but this underlines the fact that Indians and Danes have more in common than what meets the eye. In a world, that says that we are a global village due to advancements in technology, there is a chance that history might have done the same job. A tale to remember would be this Danish-Indian one.

About the Author:

Athmika Ramachandra is currently continuing her post-graduation studies at Aarhus University, Denmark under student exchange programme of Manipal University Media and Communication Department. Athmika is Gold Medallist in BA from Mangalore University, enjoys photography, listening to music, reading novels and trying out new food. A bitten travel bug Athmika cherishes writing and poetry and she is the granddaughter of Late Padyana Gopalakishna (Pa.Go), Veteran Journalist & Kannada Columnist of yesteryears from Mangalore.

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