What is the history of sugar?
As anyone who offers catering services in Manila will tell you, a traditional Pinoy feast is never complete without any form of kakanin – desserts comprised of sweetened rice. After all, it’s customary to eat sweets after a meal; the Filipino variant is no different. The same practice is observed worldwide- indeed, the whole concept of the dessert itself is a testament to the importance of sugar.
It wasn’t always so readily available like it is now, though. It involved an extreme amount of work and various processes to enable its production at the time. Nonetheless, strange as it seems, sugar used to be a rare and expensive luxury.
It all began in New Guinea about 10,000 years ago when they were able to successfully domesticate sugar cane. Over time their knowledge of the plant spread to Southeast Asia, southern China, and eventually India, where conditions were perfect for sugar cultivation. In 500 BC, Indians began producing considerable quantities of sugar in the form of cooled syrup molded in large flat bowls; this made the product easier to transport. (They called it khanda, and today this form is more universally recognized as candy.) As time passed they grew more familiar with sugar and eventually by around 350 AD, they developed a way to convert it into a crystallized form.
This made trading the sugar easier, and since they were the only ones with it during the time – about 400AD – trading proved to be incredibly prolific; everywhere the Indians went they shared their expertise with others. Land caravans and trading ships to the Middle East and China carried the Indians’ knowledge over to their territories, and by 650 AD China had sugar cane plantations of their own.
Fast forward to the 9th-10th century where the Muslims had already created a more efficient way of manufacturing sugar and had integrated the ingredient into their cuisine; their sweet products were appreciated by those who were lucky enough to try them. When European warriors descended upon the Muslim during the crusades, they were able to bring some of the “sweet spice” back to their homeland, which attracted the attention of the middle to high class citizens – thus kick-starting an influx of western traders that tried to find their fortune in the East. Nonetheless, sugar prices did not drop at all on account of sugar being very difficult to produce.
Sugar production in Europe spiked during the 14th and 15th century, though the hard work usually fell into the hands of the slaves.
When the 1500s rolled in and European settlers made their way into the Carribean, they found that the lands were perfect for sugar cultivation. Since demand was so high, sugarcane mills started popping up one by one and pushed for the need for more quick, industrial methods of production, thus being the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution that would start at the 17th century. The abundance of producers finally brought the price of sugar down to more acceptable levels, allowing some of the lower class citizens to access it too.
Of course, with the rise of the mills came the demand for cheap labor, and so the slave trade boomed. A lot of the slaves ended up in the Caribbean, further dropping its prices to more than acceptable levels and ending the trade Europe had with India. Sugar popularity remained at an all-time high, leading to the invention of other sweet foods such as jams, coffee, teas, and candies. At the end of the 18th century sugar became a common household spice.
As time passes by, the production of sugar has been simplified enough to make it as widely available as it is now. While it was only available to the elites of that era, sugar can now be accessed by and for the masses. Also, without sugar, the desserts known and loved by many will not have come to fruition today.
In fact, the earliest known dessert was the standard fruit by itself. Its sweet taste and mass availability made it easy for people of any generation grab a bite. Eventually, industrialization dawned, and the concepts of bakeshops were introduced.
Though baking itself isn’t exactly an innovation of industrialization as there have been instances of ancient civilizations utilizing heat to create doughy treats, baking was given a serious upgrade at the time with the introduction of ovens and, eventually, confectionaries.
Since its inception in 1851, the process of powdering sugar has been perfected by none other than Oliver Chase. During that year, he developed a mill to perfect the process, which in turn has brought to the world the desserts and treats known by many.
Take for instance, the doughnut. This deep-fried delicacy dusted with powdered sugar has been around for many generations. Another notable example of this is the various candies that were up for grabs during the time. Even before the entrance of the 21st century, sugary treats have become a staple in livelihood and general human memory.
Coming into the 21st century, the process of distributing and creating sugar for various purposes have all been at people’s convenience. A wide array of sugar varieties has been made available for everyone, which in turn leads to the creation of even newer desserts and treats. Sugar has also helped the restaurant industry grow into what it is today, with a majority of their attractions being their desserts. With the evolution of time and the constant perfection of every process, there is no doubt that sugar will continue to bring an impact onto future societies.
Sugar has had a tumultuous, interesting journey throughout the annals of human history and culture. It’s considered to be one of the most influential commodities humans have come across, its effects equal to that of gold. It has helped shape the culinary world into the giant it is today and has continued to bring joy in the hearts of their customers worldwide. So, the next time you grab a spoonful of it, remember that it took centuries of effort to get it there.
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