When I first went to India I had a parrot choose my fortune for me on a Calcutta sidewalk – truly. It was not the most prepossessing parrot, and it’s fortune telling consisted in it walking up to a frame that had little bits of paper inserted into it and pulling one out with its beak. Unfoldling the piece of grubby paper, I was intrigued to see that I had to find a red cow and give it some gur the next day. Gur is a thick mass of unprocessed sugar from a number of different palms. I was thrilled by this, as its Sri Lankan equivalent is jaggery the main ingredient in many Sri Lankan sweets, particularly the ubiquitous wattalappam, a superb steamed pudding of cocononut milk, jaggery, eggs and spices.

Combined with grated coconut it also forms a thick exudation that is rolled in a pancake, or can be combined with stringhoppers, and again wth coconut milk makes the evil looking paradisical sweet kalu dodol.

When I was young it used to come in a large ball, made by setting it in two half coconut shells so you get two halves that are then wrapped in a large dry leaf and tied securely with thin strips of coconut leaf – a common form of binding. You can still get it as a leaf wrapped ball but it’s more often now just the two halves bagged in plastic, or a log of it also in plastic. In Sri Lanka in 2006 I bought some in a shiny vacuum pack.

The colour and the intensity of the flavour varies on the sugar and the heat applied in its making. The darker jaggery made from kittul is superior.

I bought some gur the next day, in Gaya, the bustling smelly inland city from which you head off the Bodhgaya, the village where Buddha meditated and achieved enlightenment. It was wrapped in a piece of paper, and I carried it around as we wandered through town till I found a red bull and fed it the gur. The bull seemed to enjoy it, as did everyone watching. I’m not sure my immediate fortune changed, but no doubt it helped me become a better person, humbler anyway.

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