A sweet crystallizable material that consists wholly or essentially of sucrose, is colorless or white when pure, tending to brown when less refined, is obtained commercially from sugarcane or sugar beet and less extensively from sorghum, maples, and palms, and is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate and as a sweetener and preservative of other foods.
At the moment, the silken wedge of a plum is exploding into syrupy goop inside my mouth. I’m intensely happy. The best moments of my life revolve around sugar.
The earliest memory of sweetness is of a moment in my native place in Parur, Kerala, where I’m standing at the door of an outhouse kitchen inside my grandfather’s vast home. Male cooks clad in yellowing cotton dhotis are stirring jackfruit, jaggery and ghee in a vat to make chakkai varatti or jackfruit preserve. I’m watching them stir the bubbling confection with a ladle that resembles a spade. The sickly sweetness of thickening compote and caramelizing sugar assaults my senses. Like my father and his three sisters I, too, am paralyzed by that constant craving for something sweet.
“I simply cannot understand Saroja,” my late mother would say when she talked about my aunt’s sweet tooth. “She says she has cut back on sugar in coffee. But then, at the end of every meal, she reaches out for an almond burfi or a laddoo, both of which are saturated in sugar.”
I resemble my aunt Saroja both in appearance and personality. Like her, I believe that cutting back the sugar will decimate my spirit; I will warp into a bitter shadow of my former self. Never mind that my shadow looms rather large these days.
In my home, we don’t shrink away from sugar. Every year, my husband and I look at the numbers from our annual physical exam. The cholesterol may swing this way or that. But one number, thankfully, squeaks into the reference range, that of sugar. That means that we’ll rejoice, as before, in the bounties and festivities of the season. This summer, for instance, we’ll attend weddings, graduations and birthdays and savor all the items on the dessert table. We’ll binge on bing cherries. We’ll dig into big berries. We’ll cool with kulfi.
We’ll load up on falooda. We’ll say yup to the crepe—with banana and Nutella and a dollop of cream. When we’re in India we’ll tug greedily at a warm poli (pancake) sodden with ghee. We’ll let our tongue roll around its flaky layers.
Alas, I’m not the only one seduced by sugar. Nations were colonized, empires built, fortresses fortified, and slaves bartered—all for sugar. For centuries Europeans believed that sugar was a rare and expensive spice. Throughout the eighteenth century, sugar from the colonies was England’s most important import. Sugar became the cornerstone of foreign trade; it was shipped, in the form of molasses, from the Caribbean to Europe where it was distilled into rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were then rolled into the purchase of manufactured goods in Europe. These were shipped to West Africa where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then transported, like sardines in a can, to be sold in the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. And then it began all over again: profits from the sale of the slaves were funneled into the purchase of sugar which was then shipped to Europe.
Extensive sugarcane production created a glut in sugar supply and this once rare commodity began to grace the kitchen table in Britain and the United States. Over a 200-year period from the middle of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth, the status of sugar crystallized from dear to cheap. The capital from the sugar industry had enormous global sway. It catalyzed the industrial revolution. It triggered the large human migration of the 19th century.
Around the world, the rise in per capita consumption of sugar has been associated with industrialization and affordability. Over the decades, however, the Western world began contending with the ill effects of sugar. Alternatives to sugar now offer saccharine nirvana but, to many people, cutting back on sugar is tantamount to torture. Imagine offering a Frenchman extra-firm tofu on his cheese plate. Just try telling an Indian to shun sweetmeat.
India, the world’s biggest sugar consumer with a population of 1.24 billion, consumes over 60% more than China. Sugarcane, the largest crop in the world, is indigenous to India where its roots run deep, connecting the souls of all those born of that soil to whom the giving of something sweet translates to joy, harmony and peace. It’s little wonder then that the word “sugar” originated from India, from the Sanskrit word “sarkara” meaning “grit or grave or pebble,” that alludes to the crystalline form of cane sugar.
As I fly the friendly skies to India this summer, I will sip United Airlines’ frightful coffee and dreadful tea, and I will say, not once, but many times, to the irritation of the flight attendant, that I will have my beverage “with milk and three sugars, please, thank you.” And the attendant will give me three sachets of which I will open three and pour in just two and a half. Then I’ll grimace as I taste it and add the remaining sugar, shrug, and wince again. I shall figure that if I’m flying at thirty-three thousand feet above sea level, one thing must be true. I must be light. And then I’ll smile and ask for that Walkers Chocolate Chip shortbread cookie. Oh, yes, it has sugar, 90 calories, but who’s counting especially when airborne and hovering between reality and infinity?
I will leave you with another cloying idea about sugar. When Cleopatra is waiting, breathless and fragrant, after a languorous bath in fermented mare’s milk and honey, would Marc Anthony ever seek to make love to a prostitute? So, please, do not, do not ever press my lips to a sugar substitute. No Surrogate Stevia for me. No Spare tire Splenda.
Sugar is not a vice, unlike a one-night stand. Clad in virgin white or in raw brown, sugar is a virtue in the guise of a daily morning fix.