These beloved desserts preserve sugar’s history

Inle Lake, Myanmar CNN  — 

The smell of smoke and boiling sugar filled the air as I pedaled a bicycle along the shore of Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

It was December, which is sugarcane season here. Since the cut cane must be processed quickly after harvesting, small-scale producers were hard at work as field workers carried heavy bundles from nearby farms. When an old man beckoned me in, I paused to watch the process.

The sugarcane was pressed through a pair of heavy rollers powered by a diesel generator, the juice funneled into a series of bamboo baskets set over coals. It looked like hot, heavy work to stir the thickening sugarcane juice, which would eventually cool into a brown mass shot through with tiny crystals.

I broke off a piece of brown sugar and savored the full, rich flavor.

Recipes tell sugar’s history

Gingerbread has a combination of spices dating back to a time when sugar was seen as medicine.

That fresh lump of sugar was perhaps close to what the world’s earliest sugar makers produced: it was unrefined, dense and the product of hard manual labor. Sweet as it is, sugar’s sticky path through history is full of stories of war and conquest.

While the story of sugar could fill a library of history and travel books, there are bits of the tale in kitchens around the world. Sugar has followed in the wake of the world’s armies, from the Arab conquest to European colonialism, and it’s left a trail of recipes behind it. It’s history, as preserved in cookbooks and on handwritten cards.

That is partly thanks to the central role of sweets at celebrations.

Sweet holiday traditions

“In all the major religions, holidays have sweet foods associated with them more than any other kinds of foods,” said Michael Krondl, the author of “Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert.”

“They were special, they were expensive, and they weren’t the kinds of things you can have on a day to day basis,” Krondl writes.

And when cooks bake gingerbread or whip up a mincemeat pie for a special meal, they’re keeping history alive.

“Holidays often preserve what the everyday loses,” wrote anthropologist Sidney Mintz in his book “Sweetness and Power.” The nature of holidays, with traditions that are passed between generations, means that their distinctive foods can be a window into the past.

Not that the ingredient lists and instructions are unchanged — far from it. Cooking techniques shift quickly, but whether it’s a unique spice blend or flavor combination, many recipes still have a story to tell about human history. Learn the stories behind the sweets, and you’ll bring that history to life each time you crack open a cookbook.

Medieval sweets

Pepita marzipan is sold in the markets of southern Mexico.

Start with a tiny, sweet bite of marzipan, the sugary almond paste that many bakers shape into colorful fruits, animals, and figures. An early version appears in the “Kitab-al-Tabikh,” literally the “book of cookery,” a 10th-century cookbook that chronicled delicacies of the Baghdad court.

Both of marzipan’s main ingredients, sugar and almonds, were carried into Europe by the Islamic armies that marched across north Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. During the furthest extent of Arab rule, sugar was cultivated across the Mediterranean, and different takes on marzipan remain important in those former Islamic strongholds, including Sicily, Cyprus, Malta and Spain.

A spoonful of sugar?

When sugar arrived in Europe, though, it was rare and precious — and it was considered medicinal, one that could cure everything from sore throats to the bubonic plague. Europe’s black death might be far from your mind while stirring up dough for a gingerbread house, but the earliest recipes for gingerbread were seen as medicine, rather than a sweet treat.

“Sugar was coming in in quantities that were comparable to spices,” said Krondl, who noted that in the early days of sugar in Europe, it was often sold by apothecaries. “And it was used a lot by those apothecaries. Like the song goes, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Like recipes that remain popular today, classic gingerbread was scented with aromatic cloves, cinnamon and ginger, some of the spices whose high value and portability helped inspire Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus’ first trip across the Atlantic, when he was searching for a quicker route to Asian spice markets.

It didn’t take long for sugar to follow in the wake of his ships.

The sugar islands

Brazil's guava paste is influenced by Middle Eastern traditions brought to Spain during the expansion of Islam.

Columbus brought sugarcane on his second trans-Atlantic voyage in 1493, then transported enslaved Africans to tend the fields. (Infectious disease, warfare and enslavement killed so many native Taíno people that the Spanish quickly faced a labor shortage, according to Mintz.)

By 1516, just 24 years after Spaniards first set foot in the Americas, sugar produced by enslaved people was being exported back to Europe. England established extensive colonies in the Caribbean islands, which are sometimes referred to as “sugar islands.”

Their plantations produced goods that read like a baker’s shopping list, including sugar, molasses, coffee, rum, nutmeg, chocolate and coconut.

Trans-Atlantic fusion cuisine

All through the modern-day Americas, people enjoy traditional sweets with roots in the earliest days of the “Columbian exchange,” when ingredients and cultures from two distant worlds combined.

In Brazil, locals nibble goiabada — that’s a sugary, thickened guava paste — and in the markets of southern Mexico, you can pick up brilliant figurines shaped from mazapan de pepita, or pumpkin seed marzipan. In each case, the recipes are a reminder that military colonization of the Americas was accompanied by efforts to bring European religion to the new world.

The cross followed the sword, but sugar came too.

By 1747, the area that’s now Mexico already had 45 convents. Many of those religious orders brought recipes for the sweets that had long been made in their European convents back at home — sweets that were heavily influenced by Arab traditions.

They were quick to swap in local ingredients. The quince paste that Arabs brought to Europe became guava paste in South America. Almonds in marzipan were replaced by pumpkin seeds.

Slavery’s bitter legacy

But as the new world sweets tradition developed, the Caribbean sugar trade unfolded as one of the darkest chapters in human history.

There are echoes of both the origins and the brutality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a sweet, boozy bite of Jamaican rum cake, which still graces island tables at Christmas dinner and other celebrations. With the base of a traditional English fruit cake, Jamaican rum cake is aromatic with the spices that inspired Columbus’ early journeys, and soaked with Caribbean rum, which became a profitable byproduct of island sugar plantations.

It was the massive scale of the Caribbean sugar trade — and the enormous human suffering that trade incurred — that finally transformed sugar from a rare, precious commodity to something that Europeans expected as a regular part of their diet.

By the time working-class Brits could afford to stir sugar into each day’s tea, the world’s sugar production was a far cry from the small-scale industry I saw by Inle Lake. Consumption shot up in Europe and the United Kingdom, where importers prized pure, white sugar over unrefined cakes of simmered cane juice.

The recipes of rebellion

Brazilian guava paste is served with slices of fresh, white cheese. The Spanish quince paste that inspired it is often presented the same way.

But even as sugar slavery gripped the Caribbean, voices of dissent bubbled up in kitchens and dining rooms. Anti-slavery activists demanded a boycott of slave-produced sugar, and reworked their favorite recipes to use honey and maple syrup.

Sugar boycotts didn’t overturn slavery.

You can find a taste of that era’s activism, though, in a dense slice of Elizabeth Margaret Chandler’s honey tea cake recipe, which she published in “Genius of Universal Emancipation,” an abolitionist newspaper.

The cake, like Chandler, eschewed cane sugar as the product of the slave trade. The American writer penned poems about the cruelty of slavery and the impact of the sugar trade that still resonate with modern-day movements to bring justice to the food system.

“I cannot feed on human sighs, or feast with sweets my palate’s sense,” wrote Chandler in one of her poems about sugar and slavery. “While blood is ‘neath the fair disguise.”

Jen Rose Smith is a pastry chef-turned-freelance writer whose work explores travel, adventure and food. She’s currently living on the road, with a mountainous itinerary that goes from the Andes of South America to the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Read more of her work at