It may be touted as the most “dangerous food” in the health eating book today, but sugar or shakkar once played the role of an ace tastemaker – and a bit more.
By Madhulika Dash
Indians are a sweet loving nation. A proof of this is the unending array of sweets and their variations that have emerged from every nook and cranny of the country. In fact, it is said that if Indian sweets are put side by side they could orbit the globe. Truth or legend?! Now, that depends on which side of the orbit one belongs to. But what is worth knowing is where our intense love for sweet things originates from?
A simple explanation to this is in the history of sugar, which talks about India as one of the ancient cultures that not only discovered sugar, learned how to make it and then introduced the world to it. We gifted it to the Persian King Darius, the Romans discovered it as part of trade, and the Buddhist monks took it to China impressing Emperor Taizong who asked Emperor Harshvardhan to send farmers to introduce the crop to the region.
As a first stepper, it was but a given that we would love our sugar as much as we do its products. While that is true, what is interesting to know is that sugar rather than shakkar or gud – that was one step processed sugarcane or palm juice – began its Indian journey not much as a sweetener, but as a preserver, binder and tastemaker. That's right, tastemaker.
Used widely in medicine with Charaka Samhita and Astanga Hrudayam for its detoxing, mineral rich, anti allergic properties, and in food, sugar, as culinary anthropologist and anthropologist explorer Chef Sabyasachi Gorai discovered in ancient cooking (specifically that of Indus Valley) was used much as we use salt (unknown back then) today.
Unbelievable that it may seem today, but sugar played a decisive role in developing taste and taste DNA. And one way that sugar did so was by accentuating the baseline flavours of a dish, and playing catalyst to overpowering macro flavours like astringent, bitter, sour and tangy. Thus, creating a balance in flavours and a layered taste profile. And much like salt today, the use of sugar could vary from a pinch to a cup depending on the food.
What was interesting was not only when sugar was added but which one as a civilisation that knew the importance of jaggery we know of today. Unrefined by today's standard, sugar or shakkar/khand back then was an ace spice that not only made medicines palatable and effective, but gave food its taste. In fact, adding a pinch to a cup of sugar to dishes to balance bitterness or sourness and even extract naturally occurring sodium from fruits and vegetables was a common practice, notes Chef Gorai, who used jaggery and khand (misri) alternatively while recreating some of the Indus Valley dishes, especially the millet porridge and the lentil soup, where traditional, single processed sugar gave the dishes their taste, texture, aroma and colour.
A pinch of sugar caramelised into the oil, says Chef Gorai, “can not only elevate the taste of the food, but also work at giving it a contrasting flavour profile.” A practice that one sees regularly in older culinary cultures of Gujarat, Odisha, Bengal and also in Southern India. An excellent example of this is the sambhar or the temple dal, where hing and jaggery are added in the end to give it that richness and a distinct aroma.
The role of unrefined sugar back then wasn't limited to taste, sugar in its traditional forms were often used for the colour of a dish and also for its preservative quality. An excellent example of shakkar's Maillard reaction are the array of pickles that used jaggery as their main taste-making ingredient, and the chutneys like the famous Durga Puja tomato khatta, where it is jaggery that creates the velvety texture, taste and the elevated taste of raisins and dates.
Another common practice that sugar played a role in was the preservation of fruits and vegetables, especially the tangy and acutely sour ones that yielded well to a simple sugar syrup added to a blend of spices. This helped develop a relish that we today call murraba, the granddad of jams and marmalades.
The best utilisation of sugar was in fermentation. It was a key component on which much of the ancient world lived on as it helped create alcohol and other fizzy drinks. From the legendary soma ras believed to be a cocktail of fruits, herbs, spices and old world sugar, to beers, and even the said to be miraculous kombucha. Given that sugar is the major feed of yeast to develop, it is safe to assume that some of the finest fermented products had shakkar at the base of it – be it cheese to kimchis of the world.
Says Chef Gorai, “it is fascinating to see how shakkar in form of gud or misri works with many food ingredients. While it can pair down bitterness and sourness to quite a palpable extent, the beauty of this man-made ingredient lies in the way it works with naturally occuring sugar to give it an identifiable taste: be it in wheat, rice, fruits or any fresh produce. Spices too mellow down with the use of sugar, which is unlike salt, whose work is to bring together all the developed flavours of a dish.”
It is no wonder that sugar once exported to the world soon became an obsession, and an ingredient that would be traded as white gold. A spree that continued even when Tudors took the good old khand and turned it into what today many anthropologists believe was the original ultra processed white sugar. And with that continued to reign as a big empire.
Back home though, while the white gold was eventually acceptable given its affordability, when it came to adding zest and oomph to the daily cooking, gud and misri continued to be the ace tastemakers – not only in the sweet Gujarati dal.