English News


Sugar—How ancient India’s brilliant innovation has ruled the world

Candy has been derived from the Sanskrit word Khanda - meaning a lump of sugar (Photo: @apnedeshkojano)

It’s the season of mangoes, and while much is made of the mangifera indica, India’s most magnificent fruit as many deem it, also one of our earliest exports to the world (Buddhist monks carried saplings with them, dispersing the aam culture), an even sweeter ingredient from ancient India redefined global tastes and trade through history.

We are, of course, talking about sugar!

Many people may not know it but sugar was first made in India by the first century AD, as per most western historians— but even earlier depending on different Indian accounts.

Until then, globally, honey was the sweetener of choice; sugarcane known only in India since Vedic times. Alexander’s entourage in the 3rd century BC, for instance, mentions a wonderous reed in Punjab that produces honey without the action of bees. It is an obvious reference to sugarcane.

Historians like KT Achaya, who studied ancient Indian texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and Kannada, contend that Buddhist literature as well as the Arthshastra, in fact, mention not just the sugarcane but various forms of early, unrefined sugars made from its juice that were common in India of that time.

Khand, one of these ancient sugars and more crystalline and sophisticated than jaggery or gud that was also available since 6th century BC, Achaya says, was made by boiling down sugarcane juice to incipient crystallisation. The mass was then placed in a basket lined with cloth, and an ingenious technique of washing away molasses was invented, by using water from moist aquatic weeds which were placed on top of the basket. Large sugar crystals that formed immediately below the weeds, were repeatedly scraped off to yield Khand.

This could be purified further by repeated washing to give almost white sugar crystals, to give Mishri or Chini via techniques developed later. These early sugars made their global journeys through trade and an exchange of know how between India and the Arab world and China.

In the 7th century AD, there is a record of the Tang emperor sending a delegation to Harshvardhan’s empire to learn sugar refining. Ironically, at some point in our history, refined sugar may have started being imported from China too—leading to the widespread Hindi name for white sugar, “Chini”.

Similarly, Mishri. Arab traders took sugar back to West Asia, at first to study the medicinal qualities of this wonderous Indian “spice”. Ayurveda had already mandated sugar as a cold, light food, a mild digestive, and recommended it for therapeutic use in curing cold and cough, and facilitating the excretion of waste so that it was recommended for those with kidney problems.

Arab physicians who practised the Unani system of medicine influenced by Ayurveda too ascribed it similar therapeutic properties. As a result, demand for this medicinal and sweet spice shot up, first in the Arab world and then in Europe, via regions in Sicily and Spain ruled by the “moors”.

Techniques to refine sugar better kept being developed by the Arabs, even as the Iranians incorporated this new ingredient into many sweets and dishes. Misri, an ancient rock sugar made by refining Khand and growing crystals on a dhaga or thread in India, may have been further refined at some point in Egypt or “Misr” and arrived back in India from there.

It’s an ancient candy that we eat even today – as part of the temple offerings of Misri-Makhan in Vrindavan and in now disappearing sweets like Mawa Mishri which Delhi’s Ghantewala halwai, established in 1790, now shut, once excelled in.

In fact, the word candy itself comes from “Kandi” in Arabic from the Indian “Khand”, our most ancient unrefined sugar along with gud.

Unani physicians in fact also concocted Sharbats, using the essence of flowers and fruit and sugar as cooling, therapeutic drinks—these were eventually introduced to India in the Mughal period. Rooh Afzah by Hamdard, using a complex recipe is one such initially Unani medicine formulation.

The Arthashastra, according to Achaya, mentions various kinds of ancient Indian sugars: Phanita (thick sugarcane juice), gud (jaggery), sharkara (gud powder, drained of molasses), matsyandika (“fish eggs”, referring to some kind of small crystals) and Khand (large lumps or small faceted crystals).

In contrast, Europe didn’t know of sugar at all till the 11th century AD, when crusaders returned with “sweet salt” from Jerusalem and the Levant. But even then, right up to the 17th or 18th century, sugar was an expensive “spice” in Europe reserved only for aristocrats and used to connote wealth and status.

The poor used honey, when that was available. In fact, puddings were hardly as we know them as today. In medieval Europe, these were not the sweet, sugar sprinkled delights of Christmas. Rather, these were more porridge like with grain, whatever meats could be procured, along with salt and spices, and steamed, not baked.  The idea of desserts—and decadent French desserts—too arrived only at the end of the 17th century, in the court of Versailles.

By the end of the 14th century, sugar was a highly coveted imported commodity in Europe, whose trade was controlled by Arab and Venetian merchants. Since it was in short supply, prices were high and only the aristocrats could afford it. To counter this, plantations and mills were set up in Cyprus and then Madeira, and Europe sought to no longer rely on Arab trade.

Then, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. And the dynamic changed further with European colonialism. Sugarcane, it was found, could grow abundantly in the tropical climate of the West Indies and Brazil, and plantations were set up, worked by slave labour from America. Supply to Europe further increased, leading eventually to desserts, as we know them– but not before the 17th century.

The first French cookbooks of desserts date to the 17th century. Royal patronage meant that chefs now started imagining elaborate confections. Chefs in the court of Louis XIV in Versailles had already started organising meals in courses, instead of the confused service earlier when savouries, sweets and sweet-and-savoury dishes all appeared together.

Now, desserts started appearing in the middle of meals (an idea that survives till today in the sorbet course of degustation meals). And then as meal enders. In Versailles, fancy sugared confections became a way of connoting power and status. Artists like Bernini in fact made elaborate sugar sculptures using the commodity like porcelain, and these were used as table settings, for elaborate royal banquets, blurring the boundaries of food and art.

Marie Antoinette may never have said “let them eat cake”, but we do know the political end to this sugary excess.

Post the French revolution, as slavery was abolished, in another ironical twist of this sugared tale, indentured labourers from poor regions of India started being sent on ships to work on sugar plantations and mills in the Caribbean and Mauritius. If sugar had been the handiwork of ancient Indians, their progeny were now poorly paid labourers working to feed Europe’s growing appetite.

As other newly-discovered ingredients such as tea, coffee and chocolate made their way to Europe, the demand for sugar only went up and up.

With industrialisation and the discovery of beet sugar in America, finally prices fell as supply increased, and herein came another twist to this bitter-sweet tale. Unrefined sugar or Khand from India or Mauritius produced by poor farm labourers fed factories in England and the Americas, turning what was hand produced into a mass-produced cheap product.

In India, where even till Independence, jaggery, Shakkar (jaggery powder) and Khand—the rural sugars—were produced more than industrial, chemically-processed sugar, industrial sugar started gaining ground, first sourced from factories in Europe and then made in those started by Indian industrialists, aided by colonial policies.

Tastes started changing, and “pure white”, albeit bleached and refined sugar started becoming fashionable. Mithais and snacks made with gud started being made with “Cheeni” now. In Hyderabad, 19th century inventiveness saw not just sugared desserts but even sugared savouries! Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, one of whose authors was Dr R Flower Riddel, an advisor to the Nizam, mentions a genre of Chashnidar foods, where even Shami Kebab were dipped in Chashni or sugar syrup!

In today’s world, however, these tastes and fashions are being upended once again. As the world frowns on refined foods and industrial sugar added to foods is now looked upon as public enemy no 1, ancient India’s Khand is making an unlikely comeback of sorts.

You may know it as muscovado — darker, more moist and caramel-y than Demerara that coffee enthusiasts prefer, but as a hand-made and unrefined sugar, the molasses-rich Khand or muscovado is being sought after globally for its depth of flavour by chefs and bakers. (“Brown sugar” by the way, is usually refined industrial sugar to which molasses or even food colouring has been added later!)

Globally, muscovado used to be called Barbados sugar, because it was once produced in abundance in the West Indies (also by Indian indentured labourers). Few know that this is the same as the Khand of Western UP, the raw product for making refined white sugar. Its chicer culinary uses may involve not just cookie recipes but savoury sauces and glazes too, to make use of the flavour from molasses (that contains many trace elements like magnesium and potassium).


Along with other unrefined or raw sugars such as Gud, Panela, Sucanat and Demerara, Khand, once described as rocks the colour of frankincense by Alexander’s troops, may as well conquer the world again.


Also Read: How colonial Britain bungled in viewing diverse Indian cuisine as a mere ‘curry’