The love of sweetness goes back deep into the mists of history. Humans found sweetness in the saps that ran in plants, in fruits such as the dates prized by the desert Arabs, and above all in honey. In Antiquity, doctors from the Mediterranean to India praised golden honey as a panacea. It neither soured nor putrefied, and it conveyed this magic to other foodstuffs, preserving even perishable fruits from rotting. They described it as warm and moist, a perfect match for the temperament of the human body in the humoral physiology that ruled from Antiquity until the 17th century. Used in salves, medications and sweet confections, honey was both food and medicine. Over the centuries, imperial cooks in Babylonia, Rome and the successive Persian Empires created sweets—honey and butter mixed with toasted flours, fruits, seeds or nuts; leavened doughs drenched in syrup; smooth, starch-thickened puddings—all of which were gastronomic triumphs, aids to moral and physical well-being, and status symbols for the powerful.
Heirs to this early partiality to sweetness, Muslim courts, cooks and chemists of the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries took the sweet tradition to an entirely new level, in large part due to a new mastery of sugar refining and confectionery. Processed from the sap of the sugarcane, a tall, tough grass native to Indonesia, sugar had been prepared in India as early as the third century bce and exported to Rome as a precious spice. In Islamic times, sugarcane was grown in Persia and Central Asia, then in Egypt, and then as far afield as al-Andalus (southern Iberia) and Zanzibar—wherever the climate permitted. The processes from sugar refining to confectionery were among the most advanced technologies of the day, requiring abundant energy, elaborate equipment and great skill. The cane was crushed by millstones and pressed, the viscous green sap was concentrated by boiling, and the crystallizing syrup was poured into conical pots where hard sugar formed as the moisture dripped out.
Of the several grades, crystalline white sugar was the finest, and the most expensive. Rock candy sparkled like diamonds; smaller crystals glinted in the light when sprinkled over food. Unlike honey, sugar added neither aroma nor color, and thus preserves of fruit retained their flavor, fruit sherbets took on tints of rose, green or orange, and sweet drinks of starch or ground nuts stayed dazzling white. All could be scented with rose petals and orange blossoms. Confectioners discovered that when boiled for varying lengths of time and then cooled, sugar became successively clear and pliable, then transparent and hard, and then brown aromatic caramel, opening a myriad of culinary possibilities. The Kitab-al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), compiled by Ibn Sayyan al-Warraq at the end of the 10th century as a record of the cuisine of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad and his courtiers, gave 90 recipes for sweets, including pulled sugar, a precursor of marzipan, syrup-soaked pastry fritters, pancakes filled with nuts and clotted cream, and a pudding enriched with the drippings that fell from a roasting chicken.
Sweets, far beyond the reach of ordinary people, were emulated in palaces and mansions in the Central Asian cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv. They were enjoyed in the Indian sultanates, and the miniatures in the early 16th-century Book of Delights, commissioned by the ruler of the Islamic state of Malwa in central India, showed women preparing sherbets, halvah and rosewater. They were prepared in Islamic states in southern Italy, Sicily, Spain and Portugal (al-Andalus), whence they passed to Catholic nuns and confectioners’ guilds that in the 16th and 17th centuries transferred the techniques through their networks in Europe and the Americas as well as east to Goa, Macao, Manila and even Japan.
A second creative burst in Islamic sweet-making came in the 16th through the 18th centuries with the Mughal, the Safavid and particularly the Ottoman Empires. Paper-thin crackling pastries were soaked in syrup or honey. Brightly colored sugar-candy figures of exotic animals, such as giraffes and elephants, or structures such as castles and fountains were carried by bearers or by wheeled carts on public occasions as tangible symbols of the vast wealth commanded by the sultan. In cafés in Istanbul and Cairo, men sipped sweetened coffee, from whence the practice spread to Vienna and to the rest of Europe. Ice cream and Turkish delight were added to the list of delicacies in the 18th century. Emigrants who left the region in the 19th and 20th centuries now prepare baklava in Mexico City, Berlin and London, and Turkish delight in San Francisco and Melbourne.
In the meantime, northern European sweets had taken a different direction. Northern Europeans who had got wind of these delicious, healthful luxuries from travelers established sugar plantations, first in Cyprus in the Middle Ages, and then in the Atlantic Islands and the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. They learned the tricks of preparing jams, jellies, marzipan and fritters from Portuguese and Spanish cooks and from the confectionery manuals published from the mid-16th century on. Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, sugar production soared as Europeans opened new plantations, introduced mass-production machinery and then learned how to extract sugar from a new source: beets. For the first time, sugar became widely affordable. What were once exotic confections became snacks and everyday candies for children. Sweetness was diffused through cakes instead of concentrated in jolts of deliciousness, and by the late 20th century, far from praising sugar, doctors condemned it, so it was gradually demoted to a mere bearer of empty calories.
Yet in Islamic lands sweets continue to be a source of enchantment and social ritual, served at birth, marriage and death, as well as at the great events of the religious year, the holy month of Ramadan, ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al-Adha. As a sign of hospitality, a touchstone of culture, a path to well-being and a product of a long and proud tradition, sweets are cherished.
Rachel Laudan ([email protected]) is a visiting scholar in the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (University of California Press, 2013).