Jaggery or gur is a specific type of sugar popular in India. It is normally manufactured from either sugar cane or date palms, but recent trends in its manufacture have resulted in jaggery made from the sap of coconut and sago palms. While jaggery is useful in cooking, it is also an ancient part of Ayurvedic medicine and has spiritual significance in India too.
This type of sugar is considered unrefined and is produced by boiling raw sugar cane or palm juice in iron pans. It is then formed into blocks. Because it does not go through additional processing, it does retain some of the natural vitamins and minerals of the ingredients used, though boiling the juice does deplete some of these. Many people do consider jaggery healthier than more refined sugar since it is less stripped of natural nutrients.
In traditional Indian medicine, called Ayurveda, this sugar has several purposes. It may be prescribed for use for people with sore throats. It has some use in the treatment of bronchial or lung infections, and in fact in research has shown to possibly offset some of the lung damage caused by silicosis, a disease of the lungs that occurs when people are exposed for a long time to silica powder.
In cooking jaggery can sweeten some of the savory dishes of Indian. A pinch or two might be added to dishes like curry or sambar. Sambar is a lentil and vegetable stew popular in Indian and Sri Lanka. The sugar may be eaten in small slices alone as a dessert, or it may be combined with spices to make a variety of Indian desserts and candies.
Some Indians feel that jaggery is good luck. They may perform a traditional ceremony of eating a few bits of it prior to engaging in any new enterprise. Given its importance and popularity it's no surprise that a food that is both sweet and considered healthy could play a part in the commencement of new ventures.
In taste this unrefined sugar has been compared to brown sugar, and to other forms of raw sugar. Sometimes, inferior versions contain sand particles, which some find particularly distasteful. In appearance, you will almost always find jaggery in large round loaves that can be light to dark brown depending upon the base ingredient. Though considered healthier, it is still sugar, and is high in simple carbohydrates. You may have to look hard to find this sugar in the US; try Indian grocery stores for your best chance of locating it. Brown sugar can be substituted for jaggery in most recipes calling for it.