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Sugar in Pakistani culture, dishes, and drinks

01/02/2024 By Theresa Pereira in Recipes

Pakistan often ranks in the top ten of sugar producing countries globally, where the tropical climate is ideal for cultivating sugarcane. Total production in 2023/24 is forecast to be 7.8 million tonnes. Pakistan’s sugarcane production generally meets both domestic consumption and export demand needs.

Pakistan is both a major sugar producer and consumer

Domestic consumption is growing, largely due to an expanding population. Consumption is forecast to reach 6.3 million tonnes for 2023/24, a 3% increase on the previous year. Exports are forecast to be slightly lower in 2023/24 compared to the previous year, largely due to government curbs on exports to prevent domestic price rises.

Though Pakistan is known for sugarcane production, sugar beet is cultivated commercially, especially in the Punjab region where most of the sugarcane is cultivated. Today, sugar as a commodity is important to the country’s economy. However, its production supply chain continues to be undermined by inefficiency and a lack of competitiveness compared to other sugar-producing developing countries.

After cotton, sugarcane is the most important crop for Pakistan. As you may imagine, sugar is a staple ingredient in many Pakistani dishes and drinks. In this blog, we shine a light on the role sugar plays in Pakistani culture and cuisine. 

Gur and brown sugar in Pakistani culture and cuisine

In Pakistan, gur, an unrefined cane sugar, is not just an ingredient but something that has cultural and religious significance. Gur is jaggery, which is made by boiling and evaporating pressed sugarcane juice. The liquid is then cooled and left to harden in moulds. Gur making is a community activity that takes place at the end of the sugarcane harvest. Gur is almost celebrated in Pakistani culture, and is an important presence in gur wale chawal, a traditional Punjabi sweet rice dish that is often eaten on festive occasions, and in Pakistani folklore.

A heap of brown-coloured sugar or fudge

Gur, or jaggery, is unrefined cane sugar made from sugarcane juice boiled and then the thick syrup left of harden in moulds.

Distinct from gur or jaggery is muscovado sugar, which is milled crushed cane with varying levels of molasses, giving rise to light cane muscovado sugar and dark cane muscovado sugar. This is used to give a sweeter depth to otherwise savoury foods, such as roti bread, and to impart flavour and moisture. The flatbread Peshwari naan, which is traditionally eaten at breakfast, is also filled with a tasty combination of light muscovado sugar, dried fruit, butter and spices.

Flatbread containing dried fruit with a bowl of snacks in the background

Peshwari naan uses cane muscovado sugar.

Sauces, marinades, glazes and spice rubs often feature a blend of spices and dark cane muscovado sugar. The caramelisation qualities of this sugar, and the dark colour and smoky flavour it imparts makes it ideal with grilled meats and barbecued kebabs.

Muscovado sugar is an important ingredient in Zarda Pulao. ‘Pulao’ translates as ‘pilaf’, a rice dish consumed mainly in central Asia, south Asia and the Middle East, while ‘zard’ means yellow in the Urdu and Persian languages. This sweet, scented dish has a yellow hue due to the addition of food colouring or saffron. It is often eaten at occasions like weddings and during Diwali. Gur, or unrefined cane sugar, as an alternative to muscovado sugar, may be added for sweetness.

Sticky yellow rice containing dried fruits and nuts in a brown bowl

The sweet and savoury rice dish Zarda Pulao can include cane muscovado or gur to contrast the savoury and umami rice flavour.

In Pakistani cuisine, sugar is often used to balance out sour or acidic flavours in pickles and chutneys. For example, a little cane sugar is used in the making of imli chutney, which contains sour tamarind. The chutney is a favourite condiment that is also added to main dishes such as bun kababs, a type of fried patty or sandwich that has its origins in Pakistan.

Sugar in Pakistani baking and desserts

Gulab jamun, a sweet confectionery that is popular across the Indian subcontinent, is Pakistan’s national dessert. These fried dough balls are submerged in a rosewater-scented sugary syrup, which can be made using a cane sugar like dark cane muscovado sugar or demerara sugar. A liquid sugar syrup is also used in a dessert called jalebi, a popular sweet treat enjoyed at breakfast, as a snack or for dessert.

Fried dough balls piled up, drizzled with syrup, sitting in a bronze bowl Caramel-coloured sweet treats being fried in a deep pan of oil

Gulan Jamun (left) drenched in a rose flavoured sugar syrup, with Jalebi (right) shallow fried and covered with sticky sugar syrup when served.

Sooji ka halwa, a traditional Indian sweet dish widely enjoyed in Pakistan, is made with semolina, ghee and sugar. This sugar may be soft brown light sugar, or even jaggery powder, which comes from the sugarcane sap. When soft brown light sugar is used, the rich flavour from the molasses gives this dessert depth.

Sugar in Pakistani drinks and snacks

Ganne ka ras, or sugarcane juice, is the official drink of Pakistan. Widely available to purchase on the streets of Pakistan, this beverage demonstrates how important sugarcane is to Pakistanis. Sometimes mint leaves, fresh lime juice or ginger are added to adapt the flavour. 

Another notable beverage known throughout the Middle East and South Asia, with many variants in Pakistan, is sharbat, a sweet drink or cordial that is often served chilled. It is generally enjoyed during Ramadan. In the preparation of the drink, unrefined cane sugar is sometimes used to make a syrup, and this syrup is mixed with water.

Yellow-coloured liquid in a glass jug sitting on a table Pink-coloured liquid in two tea glasses on a white plate Clear liquid with slices of lemon and a straw in a tall glass with a glass jug behind

A daily livener on the streets of Pakistan’s cities, ganne ka ras, or sugarcane juice (left), pink basil sharbat (middle) and skanjabeen (right).

Skanjabeen, or ‘Pakistani lemonade’ combines lemon juice, water and a sugar like demerara sugar to balance out the tartness and acidity of the lemons. Though demerara comprises coarse grain crystals, these dissolve in the lemon juice to leave a smooth, sweet drink. 

Sugar’s strong influence on Pakistan’s culture and cuisine is best illustrated through its food and drinks, many of which are enjoyed daily.

Ragus manufactures functional pure sugar ingredients for industrial food and beverage applications in all the world’s cuisines, enhancing flavour, texture and appearance. To learn more about our pure sugars, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Theresa Pereira

Theresa ensures that our customers’ orders are managed efficiently and works closely with our Sales Office Manager to deliver all orders on time in full.

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