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Sugar: An Ancient Culinary and Medical Commodity

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 23, 24, and 34


Sweeteners are not new to China. During the Han Dynasy, if not before it even began in 202 BCE, magnolia buds and peonies were used in sauces, as was honey. They probably also used brown sugar, rock sugar, and malt sugar. Some say sweetener use predates the Han, maybe since 500 BCE, but records of its earleir use are spotty and questionable by some Chinese food historians.

The use of cane sugar, as we know and use it now, did not originate in China but there are accounts that the Chinese were importing this form of sugar soon after the Han dynasty ended. The Chinese then learned to refine sugar themselves from the people of Eastern India in the middle of the 7th century. Reports tell us that they liked the partially refined product, called it 'sandy sugar,' and sent an expedition to India to learn how to make it.

Actually, there were older methods of sweetening than the use of flowers. One such was using the sap of the sagwire or arenga palm. Another was to use honey and make hard cakes from it that were mixed with milk. These cakes were particularly popular and used from Sichuan to Hangzhou. However, their use was problematic. They disintegrated readily when left around in humid weather conditions. Perhaps these and other problems with them led to people to want a better sweetener. When they did import refined sugars they readily switched to them but did keep at least one oldie, honey.

Another very old sweetener not yet mentioned is maltose. This can be an extract of sprouted wheat or barley. It is usually used in its very thick form and it resembles a very dark corn syrup. This paste, that can harden, is intensely sweet and it gives finished dishes good color, aroma, and taste. You may be familiar with the taste of maltose because many chefs brush it on Peking Duck. There, it is responsible for much of the taste and the crispy skin. As are many of the sugars, maltose is considered of tonic value. The ill and the elderly are told to mix it into their tea.

Many foods were preserved in maltose in ancient China. Maltose was not only used as a tonic, it was diluted and used as a means to improve complexion, spreading it on face and hands. Some use existed such as drinking honey as a cure for colds, others used it and maltose, even other sugars, in yet other medicinal ways. All of these uses still exist today.

Rarely was honey used in main dishes but it was an ingredient of candies and used as binder in cakes. In spite of the availability of early or late sweetening ingredients, in most parts of China, little or no sugar was used in cooking, that is until recently. Its major uses before the 7th century were in candy and dessert-type foods. That was true except in Guangzhou and Wuxi, where they were known for their liberal use of sugars to sweeten their salty dishes.

Today and in yesteryear, special Chinese honeys such as Winter Honey, Lychee Honey, and Floral Honey were marketed. They and regular honey found lots of use in Chinese medicines, and only a little use in food items. Stone honey, also available in stores, is really not honey but rather sun-dried molded cakes of sugar. It, too, was popular for desserts and for health purposes. During and since the Tang Dynasty times which began in 618 CE, dishes such as Sugar Crabs and in Stewed Fruit with Almond Flavor and Birdís Nest became popular.

Other early sugar usage included heavily sugaring foods to preserve them and preserving foods was also done by smoking, salting, steeping, drying, etc. These latter techniques often included the use of one sugar or another to help preserve them. Sugar was also used in religious ceremonies, though this is minimally described in the literature. For that, sugar was used in rites associated with temple openings.

What is particularly interesting is that the amount of sugar, per capita, used in China is far less than in most other western countries. In 1949, in China at least, less than seven pounds was consumed by the average Chinese compared to more than a hundred pounds by the average American in the United States. But with the advent of bottled sodas, that should be changing. In addition to differences in amounts consumed, there are differences in types and usage. One popular Chinese use is caramelizing sugar when cooking. Nowadays, people from Guangzhou do use sugar in their dishes, but the amount can be less than half a teaspoon to a dish that will be shared by four or more persons. It is used to heighten flavors, not to make foods sweet. In Shanghai, sugar use in dishes is considerably more than that, they really do like most of their dishes tasting sweet.

In recent years, the use of cane sugar does increase overall consumption because of its use in sugar Candy and soft drinks. In Tang days, when it was called 'white frost' or tang shuang, people had a passion for sweetened cakes, especially foreign cakes. These were introduced primarily from countries to the west of China. During those times, they also liked fried yeast cakes which are somewhat akin to donuts. Some of these cakes were called 'Iranian Cakes' or hu ping. That nomenclature makes for speculation as to how and from where these foods came into the Chinese culinary.

People did and do chew on sugar canes. This use of sugar cane was very popular during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE). It was then that sugar began to replace other crops. The Chinese used pieces of sugar cane as sort of a skewer wrapping chopped meats and fish, especially shrimp and other chopped foods, around the cane. They cooked these wrapped foods over the fire or on charcoal. They also used sugar to season, that is sweeten, some spices and other foods. These uses are less popular today than they were in earlier times.

In addition to all of the above, there are reports of exotic sweets made using sugar including the making of hollow sugar animals and sugar lollipops, some time before the Ming Dynasty, circa 1368 CE. These animals were those of the Chinese zodiac, that is those who came to Buddha when called to do so. More recently, at least the very early 1960's, sugar beets came into use to make granulated sugar and products and dishes popularized in earlier times. This type of sugar now accounts for about forty percent of all sugars produced in China.

Palm sugar is also used; it can be called 'thorn honey.' This is derived from central Asian desert plants and some wonder if this was the first sugar that the Chinese made, but there are no known records of that. It is certainly an interesting, even a sophisticated educated guess because this sugar is made by boiling the sap of any of a number of different kinds of palm trees. In some cultures and countries, this type of sugar is known as coconut sugar, jaggery, or java sugar. In China, palm sugar is found in small pieces, bigger lumps, or liquid, the latter called palm syrup.

Rock sugar, from palm, beet, or cane sugar is still used in Chinese cooked dishes. It is less sweet than granulated sugars. However, one negative is that it does need to be crushed before use. On the plus side, it has nice fragrance and flavor, particularly when used in main course and dessert-type dishes. Called 'brick sugar' or 'Chinese brown sugar,' even 'Chinese sugar candy,' it is not always brown and some more refined types are light in color. They are called 'yellow lump sugar' or 'yellow rock candy.'

A popular kind, in the brown hard sugar variety, is multi-layered. It is illustrated on this page in the hard copy. Envision it with several different shades of brown and tan among its layers. It has different colors and textures among these layers and it can be crushed easily. It is a more crude sugar than any used in western cookery and it is less refined than most Chinese yellow or brown rock sugar varieties. It is popular and often preferred over all other sugars for poultry and meat dishes. It imparts a glossy brown color and a nice flavor. These brown sugar slabs are sold in one pound packages or in bulk, the pieces three to four inches long, close to three-eighths of an inch thick and about four to five inches in length. This slab sugar is popular when making Peanut Soup, New Yearís Cake which is made with glutinous rice, Ham and Glutinous Rice dumplings--the kind served in a sweet soup, and other dishes.

Fruits are also used for sweetening; that is nothing new. Though the Chinese did not have what is commonly called Ďa sweet tooth,í they did and do make many confections with preserved fruits such as plums, apricots, haw fruit, even olives. What is different though, is that they eat very little of any one of these, and as they do with fruits, they share one piece among many people.

Because the Chinese believe that kind and the amount of sugar ingested is related to health, they pay particular attention to the amount of sweet things they consume. They basically believe that medicines do a better job if they are bitter, but nonetheless temper many of them by including a small amount of sugar in pills and liquid decoctions. They also mix some sugar with licorice, particular honey--not cane sugars. They ingest this to free the body of poisons, dispel it of dirt, and rid it of other negative aspects gleaned from food. Their use of honey, brown sugar, and sugar cane juice have been incorporated into herbal remedies for cleansing, strengthening, and cooling purposes, but this incorporation is in small amounts compared to what is in American cough syrups, for example.

So from i to mi, early words for malt sugar and honey, to tang which is what all sugars are called today, there has been and continues to be use for sweeteners in Chinese food and medicine. Below are some recipes for some of the lesser known sugars.
Lily Bulb and Mung Bean Congee
Ingredients:
1/2 pound mung beans
1/2 cup glutinous rice
2 fresh lily bulbs, separated into their individual sections
2 slices (which is almost a half a pound) of slab sugar, crushed with handle of the cleaver
a dash of salt
Preparation: 1. Rinse mung beans discarding any broken ones and soak overnight; and soak the rice separately, also overnight.
2. Bring two quarts of cold water to the boil and add the rice and simmer for one hour. Then add the beans and cook for another twenty to thirty minutes until almost all the beans have split open.
3. Add lily buds and the sugar and simmer another five minutes until all the sugar is dissolved, then add the salt, stir, and serve.
Pineapple with Brown Sugar
Ingredients:
1 pineapple
1/3 pound crushed dark rock sugar
1/4 pound cane sugar
2 Tablespoons orange flavored liqueur
I teaspoon oil
Preparation:
1. Peel the pineapple and remove any dark parts. Then cut it into eight round slices, each about one-half to one-inch thick.
2. Simmer the rock sugar in a cup of water until it melts, then add the cane sugar and continue cooking until it melts.
3. Add the pineapple and simmer for fifteen minutes. Turn the slices every few minutes and be careful that they do not burn, browning them is fine.
4. Add the liqueur, stir well, and then remove the pineapple. And put it in individual dishes or a platter with a rim.
5. Keep simmering the sugar water until it is browned and thick, then pour it over the pineapple slices and serve.
Chestnuts and Chinese Yams
Ingredients:
1 cup peeled dry chestnuts
1/2 cup corn oil
1 pound Chinese yams, peeled and cut into one-inch or larger cubes
1 envelope powdered tea, half teaspoon or two grams in weight
1/2 cup yellow rock sugar
1 Tablespoon maltose
Preparation:
1. Simmer the chestnuts for an hour, then drain them.
2. Heat oil and fry the yam cubes until slightly browned on all sides, drain and set aside, and then fry chestnuts for two minutes and drain them. Set oil aside for another purpose.
3. Put half cup of water into a wok or pot and bring it to the boil. Add the sugar and maltose and lower heat simmering this until it is sticky, about five minutes, then add the yams and the chestnuts and mix well.
4. Sprinkle the powdered tea on this, stir, and serve.
Fried Bananas
Ingredients:
2 eggs, beaten until light in color
1 cup flour
4 bananas, cut into one- to two-inch chunks
6 Tablespoons cane sugar
1 Tablespoon maltose liquid
2 cups oil
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
Preparation:
1. Mix eggs and flour and put banana pieces in and stir until coated.
2. Put both sugars in a pot with two cups of water and simmer while frying th bananas in the next step, and prepare a bowl with two cups of water and half dozen ice cubes.
3. Heat oil and fry half the banana pieces until lightly browned, drain and remove them and put them into the hot sugar syrup and immediately remove with a slotted spoon and drop them into the ice water; and drain and put into a serving bowl. Repeat with the other half of the bananas. When both are in the serving bowl, sprinkle the black sesame seeds on them and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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