Words & Images by Anvi Sawant
Sugar Here, Sugar There, Sugar Everywhere
History is visible on our plates. We can taste it every time we reach out for those brownies, chips, cinnamon buns, fruits and candies. There are many animated cartoons about tooth fairies and other villains of the dental world. These villains bring plaque and cavities to naughty children who have sweets but do not brush their teeth. Candies are fun, but their sugary residues invite these villains. Dentists throughout the past few generations have been crying themselves hoarse educating children and their parents about it.
Even the toothpaste companies that make some of these cartoons have tubes of toothpaste that taste sweet. It is through chemical sweeteners obviously. They want to mask the detergent’s taste.
Sugar is a temptation for children and for adults.
We cannot imagine but it was once known as ‘White gold’. It was very expensive and available only to the rich in the present-day Western world. It is highly connected to history, politics, agriculture, and colonialism.
How did its widespread use become indispensable to most cultures?
Sugar was a part of the triangular trade around 1670. European settlers had taken over South American lands to have large-scale plantations of sugarcane. Slaves were brought from places to help with this tedious and expensive agricultural business.
That is how the once elite ingredient that was scarce became widespread in the present-day developed world. The triangular trade consisted of ships from the Caribbean carrying sugar and molasses from the plantation colonies to North America. A part of molasses was used for distilling rum. This was further taken to South Africa and slaves were bought in exchange to be taken to sugar plantations in the Caribbean . There was competition among the different European colonisers around the sugar trade. It led to the passing of the Molasses act by the British in 1733. It taxed the import of sugar from non-British foreign colonies. Before the American revolutionary war, there was an aversion to imported sugar and its related products in the American colonies. Alternatives such as molasses made from locally grown apples were used. The indigenous people in North America used sugar extracted from maple trees. At other places in Europe such as France under Napoleon , cultivating sugar beets was encouraged to deal with the blockade from the West Indies. Sugar beets were cheap and local compared to imported sugarcane from the plantations. Sugar beet extraction and refinery plants were established in France.
In many other places of the world, honey was used as a sweetener. Before Alexander’s Indian invasion, the Middle East used dates and other fruits for elements of sweetness. Alexander is believed to have taken sugarcane from India to the Middle East. There are many ancient Indian verses depicting a few Goddesses holding sugarcane. Goddesses cover a spectrum from highly ferocious ones wearing human skulls to those who are benevolent and holding sugarcane. The Indian God of lust has a bow made from sugar cane and his arrow is filled with honey bees buzzing around it. This was a depiction that everything concerning these specific benevolent Gods and Goddesses consists of sweetness, unlike the ferocious one. In other depictions, you have their counterparts holding weapons as well as fruits that could be sweet or tangy depicting the nature of these deities. Some were sweet, sour and astringent like the fruits they held. There was a range of standards and tastes of sweetness depending on the source. This gamut of sweetness could be seen across different cultures too. At the elementary level, we are taught about sucrose, glucose and fructose. But we have forgotten the taste of many other sources of sweetness.
The way artificial sweeteners mask the taste of detergents in toothpaste, they serve a similar purpose in medicines, fast foods and other packaged products. The widespread availability of sugar means that all the ingredients in a pudding, pastry or other packaged foods are masked. Packaged foods include potato crisps, nachos, and other savouries. There is hardly anything that is available in supermarkets including humus, dips, and pre-mixes without sugar or artificial sweeteners added to them. International companies selling malt powders had a way of entering the markets of third-world countries that were grappling with problems of malnutrition. They claimed that their Malt products when added to milk could provide all the nutrition that children would need. However, experts have objected to these false claims and revealed that sugar is the main ingredient in these powders. There is barely any nutrition in them. Despite multiple cases, there is no change in their marketing tactic.
This brings us to the earlier point, what ingredients and taste is sugar masking? For packaged food, it is on purpose but otherwise, people’s sugar cravings have forgotten the entire range of sweetness from various sources.
Popular cultures have forgotten that sugar, salt, and spice should not be dousing.
All the other ingredients of a dish count.
However, at present these 3 things overpower every other ingredient. Is it to hide the ingredients or to make up for their lack of freshness?
My 50 year old German friend in the UK would make banana toffee pudding. The flavour of the banana and the texture of the toffee would burst out. Sugar played a minuscule role in it. This is the case with my older German friends too. Everything baked for Christmas has its distinct taste without sugar or spice overpowering any ingredients. Carrot cakes used carrots for sweetening instead of anything else.
Despite sugarcane growing in India and its mythological depictions, sweetmeats were eaten only for special occasions.
Around Mumbai in Maharashtra, India there are different sweet preparations for every festival. Festivals were the only times when they were made as this region was constantly engaged in wars, resisting invasions from various foreign rules. Supplies of sugar, butter and anything luxurious had to be in controlled quantity. The widely growing local ingredients had to be relied on. The festival of Holi celebrated as Shimga along the coast of Maharashtra and Goa marks the beginning of summer. Puranpoli is prepared at that time. It is a combination of split gram, wheat, jaggery (a different sweetener obtained from sugarcane) and ground spices. If the sweetening agent exceeds its quantity, you will not be able to taste the rest of the things specifically harvested during this time.
In the winter, we have special sweets made up of sesame seeds, peanuts and jaggery. The combination of the ingredients has medicinal properties to help deal with the cold. During the rainy season along the coast of Maharashtra and Goa, we make Patole. It uses fresh and locally produced rice flour along with the tenderest coconut flesh. All of this is brought together with jaggery and a few strands of spices. It is steamed in turmeric leaf. The same dish is steamed in Jackfruit leaves during the festival of Shimga in some parts of Goa. The leaves are only for imparting flavour while steaming and not eaten. This flavour is one of the chief ingredients of the dish.
During non-festival days, my grandmother would prepare her much-loved Gomantak fish saar which is a coconut curry containing only one or two spices. She would be anxious about using excess onion. According to her generation, coconuts were sweet and onions would further add to the sweetness messing with the taste. Even at present, my aunt uses fresh radishes to bring the heat to the same preparation instead of lots of red chilies.
Sugar was mostly used as a preservative agent despite growing at this place. Jaggery is known for its controlled sweetness. However, the past few generations are addicted to sugar everywhere. Even jaggery or other natural sweeteners used beyond a limit defeat the purpose.
Our palette has to recollect the memories of the tastes of other ingredients and their inherent sweetness. Somewhere it has forgotten the taste of a wide spectrum of sweetness from different sources. I wonder how much of the gourmet food incorporates these natural and organic tastes. Most people will not be able to answer as they themselves have barely tasted the wide range of authentic and natural foods.