Sugar: Beginnings in Asia

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Europe barely knew what we now consider ordinary table sugar until around 1100, and it was a luxury until 1700. Our first major source of sucrose was the sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, a 20-foot-tall member of the grass family with an unusually high sucrose content—about 15%—in its fluids. Sugar cane originated in New Guinea in the South Pacific and was carried by prehistoric human migration into Asia. Sometime before 500 BCE, people in India developed the technology of making unrefined, “raw” sugar by pressing out the cane juice and boiling it down into a dark mass of syrup-coated crystals. By 350 BCE, Indian cooks were combining this dark gur with wheat, barley, and rice flours and with sesame seeds to make a variety of shaped confections, some of them fried. A couple of centuries later, Indian medical texts distinguished among a number of different syrups and sugars from cane, including crystals from which the dark coating had been washed. These were the first refined white sugars.