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Sugar's Many Forms and Uses

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Summer Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(2) page(s): 21-23 and 36

Many sweeteners were known and popular in early China, honey among them. It was called mi or feng mi, and known to the Chinese at least as early as the 3rd century BCE, perhaps earlier. However, it was not the white granulated kind we know today. Said to be the brown slab sugar used in China's south, it is shown on this page. Note its many layers of different brown sugars in each slab.

In Chinese, sweet is kan, and early Chinese revered it and recommended it for the elderly. Deemed a luxury coming from the west, they valued it for its taste as well as a food for their elderly, and as an item to exchange for silk which they wanted to be buried in. Sweeteners can be found mentioned on oracle bones in Han tombs. They were reported consumed at Han Dynasty feasts (202 BCE to 220 CE). Five hundred years later, reports of bee-keeping told how honey could be found in bee hives and how it was used. Before keeping bees, honey was an important medicine, and used in foods and confections. Its medicinal use diminished over time.

Honey, or mi, was the only fermented substrate known in China early on. It is mentioned in the Song of Songs before 300 BCE as a medicament and discussed in the Prescriptions for 52 Ailments circa 200 BCE. The Shen Nung Pen Tsao Ching, written during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 23 CE), speaks of 'stone honey' and says it can be used to ferment fruits into wines without any chu or ferment.

Sugar cane did come to China before the Han Dynasty. We know that because canes do appear in the 8th century BCE as an item to chew on for sweetness. Sugar also appeared in a famous poem called 'The Elegies of Chu.' In early Han times it was called stone honey or shi mi, and the Chinese made cakes with it. They also drank juices made from or with cane sugar. These were not that popular in Han Dynasty times, and why not is not clear. Juices from sugar did experience early popularity in the years just after Christ. The early Chinese did say that honey comes from flowers, modern Chinese and westerners know bees use enzymes in their saliva to split the sucrose in honey into dextrose and fructose. The latter is the most abundant early sugar source found in China.

Early Westerners had different beliefs about sugars than did the Chinese. Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power published by Viking Press in 1985, writes of earlier times when honey came from the Canary Islands or Madeira, and that the Chinese believed if taken in moderate amounts, honey would clean the blood, strengthen the body and mind, especially the chest and lungs and throat, and would make their teeth blunt as well as aid in their decay.

Modern views about sugar are not too favorable. William Duffy's 1975 book, Sugar Blues, lists more than sixty problems related to sugar consumption including addiction, alcoholism, brain malfunction, cancer, criminal behavior, depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, hyperactivity, impotency, loss of taste, migraine, overweight, schizophrenia, ulcers, vitamin deficiencies, etc. In early days, China used a microbial culture called chu as a starter for flour products that fermented grains and fruits into alcoholic beverages. However, they did not connect sugar to obesity nor to any other health condition. They did understand that babies appreciated this taste perception from birth; and we now know the tongue recognizes the sensation of sweetness, and that all sugars be they sucrose, glucose, fructose, or maltose are not equally sweet.

Known in Chinese as tang, besides it sweetness, early Chinese thought of sugar as a thickener. They used maltose mixed with honey for that, also made an early thickener from rice and/or another grain such as barley malt. They even used palm sugar, and that was about 700 BCE. Women were chewing sugar cane and other things for sweetness, their saliva changing the amylase in the canes from starches to sugars; but they probably did not know that specifically.

Did the Chinese know of thresholds of perceived sweetness? Did they recognize that color impacts sweet taste perceptions as does aroma and viscosity? Did they know that sugar intake increases obesity? What about that many fruits, particularly dried ones, have more sugar than fresh ones? Some believe they knew these things, others are unsure. They certainly knew about seasonal differences in sugar perceptions because they said that sugar nourishes the liver in spring, does likewise for the heart in summer, in autumn it nourishes the lungs, and in winter it is of value and health for the kidneys. They said and still say sweets make men happy and that they relax and nourish internal organs and energize the body.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a westerner in China, namely Pearl Buck's husband, wrote that sugar is not essential to man's diet, and that it is consumed in an aimless manner between meals. Anderson and Anderson, more than forty years later said, Chinese uses very few sweets and seem to have virtually no diabetes. Both are not true. These days there is an enormous intake of sugar in and outside of China by Chinese youth, and a decline in their nutrient intake because of it and an increase in their dental caries. Cubes of sugar are illustrated with this article. The Chinese do deem them as candy, as it says on their wrappers. They cook with them, not as candy but to sweeten their foods.

History shares many stories about China's use of sugar. For example, in 1080 CE, a Song Dynasty poet, Su Tung Pho, learns from a friend how to make what was probably mead. He writes about this in a poem but not how to do it. Earlier, in Han Dynasty times, fruits such as apricots and persimmons are dried or coated with sugar to preserve them as are apricots, persimmons, and green fruits; so is ginger, bamboo shoots, and arrowroot. All of these are held over long after their main growing season. In Han Dynasty times, some recommend adding salt before soaking foods in honey. Sugar in fruit wines, using their own sugars or honey, are probably the oldest fermented beverages in Neolithic China. The Yellow Emperor invents earthenware pots and steamers to boil grains to ferment them and uses their own sugars. It is not until Song Dynasty times (960 - 1279 CE) that cane sugar replaces honey to do this.

Nowadays, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses, sucrose, and many forms of syrup are used for this as are artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame, sucralose, saccharin, and sugar alcohols. All of these sweeten Chinese foods and their beverages.

China's south is its sugar-cane producing area, Guangzhou and Fujian used to account for ninety percent of all sugar production in China. Then in the 1920s, large amounts of sugar beets were grown, mainly in the north in and around Harbin. China is now the fourth largest sugar producing country in the world, its sweeteners not enough to meet the needs of its people. Therefore, they import more than a million tons to satisfy their domestic needs. Incidentally, sugar made from beets was probably introduced to China during Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE) by Arabs from the Middle East, but then not used in large amounts.

Saccharum officinarum is, a descendent of the now extinct wild plant related to sugar cane. It is a giant grass that looks like bamboo and has stems filled with a sappy pulp. Nearly ninety percent of its weight is its own sweet juice. Sugar cane was cultivated from an early date in China as it was in India. It is referred to in a love poem as a symbol of sweetness and attractiveness.

Technically, one gram of sugar has four calories, a single teaspoon of any sugar has sixteen calories, a twelve ounce can of soda one hundred and thirty calories. Chinese main dishes in Shanghai often include just a mite of sugar, but less than half a teaspoon. Elsewhere, some soups and dim sum dishes use more, but sugar is not a popular culinary ingredient, even in sweet items.

Below are several recipes using different sugars. Learn differences in taste and usage, and enjoy them all. Do keep in mind that the Chinese, particularly those from the south of their country, prefer their brown sugar in dishes!
Pan-fried Chicken Wings
1 pound double-bone chicken wings
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon coarse-ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons oyster sauce
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon hot sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Mix chicken wings with the salt and pepper and set this aside for one hour.
2. Mix oyster and soy sauces, add the rice wine, honey, hot sauce, and cornstarch and set this aside separate from the wings.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil and the chicken wing mixture and fry them until golden brown on both sides, about seven minutes a side.
4. Add the sauce mixture and three tablespoons of cold water and simmer for three to five minutes, then serve.
Mixed Meat, Peas, Beans, and Potatoes
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
1 small onion, minced
2 Tablespoons water chestnut powder
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium-size potato, peeled and cubed
1 cup caned black beans, rinsed
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon thick soy sauce
1/4 cup frozen green peas
1. Mix both ground meats with the onion, water chestnut and corn starches, bouillon powder, and ground pepper. Form this mixture into one-inch balls, and set them on a dry plate.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, meat balls, and the potatoes and brown on all sides; then discard any oil still in the pan before adding the rest of the ingredients and three tablespoons water. Simmer this stirring gently for three minutes, then serve.
Coriander and Brown Sugar Cakes
1/4 pound coriander leaves, their stems discarded or set aside for another use
1 cup crushed Chinese brown sugar pieces
1 cup cake flour
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons sesame oil, separated
1/2 cup lotus seed paste
1 or more cupcake molds
1. Bring two cups of cups cold water to the boil and add the coriander leaves. Reduce the heat and simmer them for half an hour.
2. Next, add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved and then remove the pot from the heat source.
3. Stir in the flour, cornstarch, and half the oil and stir this well before, covering and letting this rest for fifteen minutes.
4. Kneading this dough until soft, then divide the dough into twenty pieces. Put half of them in the center of each cupcake or another circular mold patting them onto the bottom and sides of each mold. Next divide the lotus seed paste in ten parts, rolling each one into a small ball slightly flattened.,and then put on top of the dough.
5. Flatten the other ten pieces of dough and cover the lotus seed paste pressing the edges together to seal them. Then knock them out of the cupcake molds.
6. Grease a plate with half of the remaining sesame oil and put the prepared cakes on the greased plate, separating them from the others by half-inch. Put this plate in a steamer basket and steam over boiling water for five minutes. Before removing them, brush the tops with the remaining oil. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Pear Cakes Stuffed with Red Bean Paste
1 Chinese pear, peeled, core discarded, fruit diced
1 cup all purpose flour
1 egg, beaten until light yellow
1 cup red bean paste
1 cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Mix pear pieces, flour, egg, and one cup of cool water, then knead them. Divide into six balls and roll into thin pancakes.
2. Divide the bean paste into six parts, and put one batch of bean paste in the center of each pear dough, fold the dough in half with no bean paste showing through.
3. Heat a fry pan or a wok, add the oil, then the folded filled pancakes and fry them on each side until golden brown.
4. Next, steam the pear cakes covered and in a steamer basket over boiling water for five minutes. Remove them to a pre-heated serving dish.
5. Heat the sugar and one tablespoon cold water in a small pot while the pear cakes are steaming. Just before serving, pour this sugar water over them and serve.
Black Date and Walnut Squares
1 cup Chinese black dates
1/2 cup small walnut pieces
3 Tablespoons white rock sugar
3 Tablespoons maltose syrup
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Soak black dates in two cups of boiling water for five minutes, then remove their skins and pits.
2. Put the dates in heat-proof bowl in a 250 degree oven and bake them for half an hour. Next remove them from the oven and cool them on a flat plate.
3. Soak walnuts in boiling water for half an hour, then bake them in the same oven for fifteen minutes.
4. Put dates and three tablespoons of warm water in a small pot, add the rock sugar, maltose, and the dates and simmer stirring until this thickens. Then stir in the walnuts and pour this mixture into a 8x8 inch tray and press evenly. Allow to cool before cutting it into squares. Put them on a lightly greased plate and set them aside for at least an hour before serving.
Lotus and Dried Fig Soup
2 Tablespoons lotus seeds
2 Tablespoons lily bulbs
2 Tablespoons goji berries
5 dry longan fruits, without the pits
4 dried figs
1 piece dried tangerine peel
2 Tablespoons chopped brown rock sugar
1. Rinse lotus seeds, lily bulbs, goji berries, longans, and tangerine peel before soaking them in one quart of water for half an hour. Next remove the tangerine peel, cut the figs into small pieces, each about the size of a raison, and do the same for the lily bulb pieces. Also dice the tangerine peel into smaller pieces than the figs, scraping off any pith before doing so.
2. Bring six cups of cold water to the boil, add the lotus seeds, lily bulb pieces, goji berries, longan and dried fig, and tangerine peel pieces. Bring this to the boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for one and a half hours. 3. Next add the rock sugar pieces and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Now divide the fruit evenly and serve in small bowls.
Twice Almond Tea
3 Tablespoons regular almonds
1 Tablespoon bitter almonds
2 Tablespoons lotus seeds
1 Tablespoon small pieces of white fungus, or large pieces broken into small pieces
2 Tablespoons uncooked long-grain rice
1/4 pound white or tan rock sugar
1. Soak every ingredient except the rock sugar in its own bowl for two hours, then drain each one and discard its water.
2. Simmer the lotus seeds in three cups of warm water for half an hour, then add the rock sugar and the white fungus pieces and simmer stirring until all the sugar is dissolved, and set this liquid mixture aside.
3. Put both almonds and the rice in a blender with two cups of cold water. Blend for one minute, repeat three times allowing the blender to rest two minutes between each blending. Then remove and strain this mixture through two layers of cloth, squeezing out as much water as possible into the lotus seed and sugar water.
4. Bring this liquid to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes, then serve hot or warm.
Rock Sugar with White Radish
1/2 cup brown sugar pieces
1 pound white gourd or daikon, peeled
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1. Coarsely crush the pieces of sugar by hitting them with a ammer or mallet.
2. Thinly slice the gourd or daikon on a mandolin
3. Bring three quarts of water or chicken stock to a boil, reduce the heat, and add the sugar, daikon or gourd, and the salt and simmer until the vegetable is soft and the sugar and salt completely dissolved.
4. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Rock Sugar with Wintermelon
1/2 cup white sugar cubes
1 pound wintermelon, peeled and cubed
2 quarts chicken stock
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon goji berries
1. Bring four quarts of water to the boil, reduce the heat, and add the cubes of sugar and those of the wintermelon, Simmer for half an hor, by then the wintermelon should no longer be white but appear almost clear.
2. Add the stock, the salt, and the gojiberries and simmer another ten minutes. Then serve.

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