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Til Gul – the essence of Sankrant

As the sesame seeds were roasting, their delicate aroma hovered over the pan and soon filled up my entire kitchen. Simultaneously, golden brown sugar syrup was bubbling away in a saucepan, adding a subtle sweet fragrance around me that reminded me of my childhood days when mom made Til Gul  especially for Sankrant.

The very first Indian festival of the year is here and for the very first time, I made the quintessential sweet for the festivities, Til Gul, at home. After all these years, I was almost craving to bite into one of those soft, nutty candies and I decided to make some right away! I pulled out my handbook of Marathi cuisine, “Ruchira” (see Evolving Tastes for the details and an extensive review of the book) and looked at the traditional recipe. Having all the ingredients on hand, I jumped right at it by roasting the sesame seeds and caramelizing the sugar. The simple combination of  the sesame seeds with melted sugar is incredible on it’s own, but becomes even more amazing when mixed with ground cardamom and crushed roasted peanuts. This, to me, is the true essence of Sankrant!

Growing up, I remember dressing up for Sankrant and going door-to door in the neighborhood along with the other kids, sharing the sweet treat and telling everyone to talk sweetly with us during the year. It used to be just like Halloween when kids go around trick -or-treating, except we exchanged candies with everyone and went home with a variety of homemade til gul. At home, mom would call for a ladies-only get-together in the everning called “haldi kunku”. I think it was more of a tea-time party that she hosted when her friends and relatives gathered together for chit-chat and snacks. My sister and I used to have to greet everyone and go around with trays of goodies prepared for the evening and also hand out the party favors when people left. And this party had a dress code too! Everyone wore a black outfit, since it’s auspicious to wear black for Sankrant.

Sankrant is celebration of the harvest season in India. This is one Indian festival that has a fixed date, January 14th (or 15th in case of a leap year, like this one) since it is based on the movement of the sun and not the lunar cycles. Different states in India have different names for it - Lohri in Punjab, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Makar Sankrant in Maharashtra and Pongal in the southern states. In Maharashtra, where I am from, this festival has a special significance since it marks the beginning of a very auspicious period. The sesame sweet, til gul, is an integral part of the festivities and we share it with each other along with the tagline “Til gul ghya, goad goad bola” which literally translates as “accept the til gul and always say only sweet words”.

It is difficult not to have sweet words coming out of your mouth, especially after eating such a decadent sesame sweet treat. The rich, nutty flavor from the sesame and peanuts, combined with the sweetness of the jaggery and the warmth from cardamom leave a memorable flavor in your mouth. The soft little balls of til gul I made were perfectly sweet and simply irresistible! I popped a few of them in my mouth while making and then bagged the remaining for sharing with my friends and family.

Recipe adapted from “Ruchira – Part II” cookbook by Kamalabai Athavle 

Makes about 40 tablespoon-sized balls

1½ cup sesame seeds

¾ cup ground roasted peanuts

8-10 cardamom pods, peeled, seeds ground to a fine powder

1 cup light or dark brown sugar (I used brown sugar instead of jaggery. You can also use regular sugar)

¾ water

In a pan, roast the sesame seeds till golden brown. When cooled, grind it to a fine powder.

Mix the ground sesame, peanuts and cardamoms and set aside.

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and heat over medium low heat till the sugar dissolves and the syrup bubbles up. Remove from heat and immediately add the sesame, peanut and cardamom mixture to the sugar syrup and mix thoroughly to form a dough like mixture.

When cool enough to handle, using greased hands, take 1 tablespoon measure of the mixture and roll into a ball.

Let them cool completely and store in airtight container. They should last for 2-3 weeks atleast when stored in a cool place without direct light.

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