Friday, 30 September, 2022

Can We Bring Date Juice Back from the Brink?

Md. Zillur Rahaman

Can We Bring Date Juice Back from the Brink?

Once upon a time, in the winter, the aroma of all kinds of cakes (pitha) and puli (patty) made by mother would fill the house. When winter came, a festive atmosphere prevailed in the villages around the ‘palm tree’ known as the honey tree, the traditional symbol of rural Bengal for a long time. In the winter season, the villagers entertain guests with molasses, patali, pitha, payesh, etc. made from the date juice. But the molasses of the date juice is hardly seen in the village market anymore. Everyone has forgotten the taste of the sweet date juice, the tradition of winter. The original date palm and its juice are no longer available in the market like before. Most of what is available as date molasses is marketed as an alternative to sugar, this is why many people say nowadays that cheating is another name for date molasses!

Jashore, Kushtia, Jhenaidah, Faridpur, Madaripur and Khulna districts of south-western region were famous for date palm, molasses and juice. At one time, date molasses was highly valued as a cash crop. The history of the traditional Patali Gur of Jashore is very ancient. Jashore date juice and molasses are incomparable in taste and smell. Even seven or eight years ago, in winter, people of these areas used to spend a lot of time collecting date juice from the trees. They used to earn a huge amount of money by selling date juice and Patali molasses. It used to be exported abroad but it seems to have become extinct in the last few years. Although there is a tradition of making cakes and pies with date juice in the winter season, the juice of winter palm trees is now scarce. For this reason, people used to be busy collecting date juice even in the midst of severe winter. Over the last few years, the number of date palm trees in remote rural areas of the country has been declining due to people cutting down trees indiscriminately to build houses.

Although there are still enough date palms in some areas of remote villages in the south-west of the country, many date palms are dying every year due to improper care, lack of planting new saplings and systematic felling of trees. In addition, the number of date palms is declining due to the use of date palm as fuel by a class of unscrupulous brick kiln traders.

Like every year, this year too, professional date palm gatherers are facing an extreme crisis at the beginning of winter. Even then, in some areas, some gatherers have started collecting sap from date palms as a hobby in the morning and afternoon. The dewy grass of the morning and the thick foggy moon signals the arrival of winter at the end of autumn. At one time, with the arrival of the seasonal date juice, the winter mood started in the rural areas.

The trees are cut down in a special way to collect date juice in winter. At the beginning of autumn, pruning is done to extract the juice from the date palm. After the first tree is done, a specially made tube or funnel of twigs is placed there. Next to it is a small bamboo pole for hanging an earthen pot. The juice falls through the tube into the pot. There are also some techniques for cutting date palms for extracting juice. None but a skilled cutter knows when, how, and where to cut, so that the tree will not die, but more sap will be available. Once the cut is made, the sap is collected for next 2-3 days.

As the winter progresses, the sweetness of date juice also increases. There is a wonderful connection of date juice with winter. The symbol of glory and tradition, the sweet juice of the date palm tree are extracted to make pitha, payesh and molasses patali gur. In the villages, the sweet smell of tube molasses, bag molasses, granular molasses and patali molasses made with date juice seem to fill the air. The different delicious foods including date juice pies, juice-soaked cakes were beyond comparison.

But in the vicissitudes of time, date juice is completely lost from nature today. The south-western region was once famous for the tradition of ancient Bengal date palm and molasses. Many people used to call date palm the honey tree. At that time in the winter season, the rural areas were filled with the sweet smell of date juice.

The housewives used to make delicious pies with date juice, making cakes soaked in different types of juice. There was none equal to the patali date palm molasses to satisfy the taste. Ordinary people in rural areas wake up in the winter morning shivering, as if the day would have turned to dust without drinking the cold date juice. But due to the aggression of brick kilns, the number of date palms is getting less every day. Moreover, due to high daily income in brick kilns or other occupations, the number of date palms juice gatherers has come down drastically. Many have given up their ancestral occupations forever. 

Even though burning of date palms in brick kilns is prohibited by law, the owners of brick kilns continue to do so. Over the last few years, the use of date palms as fuel for brick kilns has led to rapid depletion of date palms in the country. As a result, people in rural and urban areas are now missing a lot of fun foods made with date juice.

According to the gatherers who collect sap from naturally growing date palms, there is no date palm as there used to be. As a result, in the interior rural areas in winter the price of date palm juice has increased. At present, a full jug of date juice is being sold at Tk.100-150. The juice collectors say that since the forest department has no effective measures to protect the date palms, the date palms and the sap of the date palms in the winter season are only going to become like an Arabic fable for future generations.

In order to increase the production of this traditional date juice, the existence of palm trees must be maintained and for that, it is necessary to protect the date palm trees from loggers including brick kilns through proper enforcement of environmental laws. However, in some areas, the agriculture department has recently advised farmers to plant date palms. It will be possible to meet the demand of date juice and molasses for future generations if the farmers plant sufficient quantities of date palms in the abandoned places around the house.

At one time, date molasses was exported to many countries of the world including Europe to meet the demand of the consumers. Therefore, more and more date palms need to be planted in public-private initiatives and the tradition of palm juice needs to be brought back through training. Due to indifference of local administration and lack of strict surveillance, huge numbers of date palms are being destroyed by burning in brick kilns. If this continues, the tradition of date juice may be lost forever and payesh, cake of date juice, etc., will survive only in our memories.


The writer is a banker