Tag Archives: Desserts

Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day.  Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.

In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques.  They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)

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Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims

In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.

For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State.  Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold.  Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)

Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain.  Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”.  (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century.  From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came.  From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar.  (Watson, 30)

Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East.  It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology.  (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar.  Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)

“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples.   Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)

There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well.  Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe.  In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba.  He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).

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Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane. 

The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.  Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad.  (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar).  Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink).  The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic.  Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.19.40 PM.png Continue reading Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

Church, Chocolate & Chattel

The Catholic church has a long history connected to chocolate, as it was introduced to courts in Spain by clergy,  prepared by new world nuns, and settled questions about chocolate’s role in diet and medicine. While the church had no direct involvement in slavery in the chocolate and sugar industry, its indirect involvement, and even forbidding of enslaving Mesoamericans lead directly to African chattel slavery. It is at the intersection of chocolate and church that a church-avoidant industry promoted chocolate as a medicinal; growing its demand that prompted African chattel slavery that was out of the reach of the church.

Chocolate in Europe


chocolate prepared hot with cinnamon and vanilla. Modification of the traditional Mesoamerican drink with spices and sugar made it very pleasing to the European palate when it reached the old world


The earliest documented evidence of cacao reaching Europe was in 1544 when Dominican friars brought Kekchi Mayan nobles from Guatemala with new world gifts such as animals, plants, spices, etc., and of course, a frothy drink made of cacao to Prince Philip of Spain (Coe & Coe, 2013). Unlike cacao’s earlier consumers, Spanish invaders found it unpalatable. It was described by Girolamo Benzoni as a drink “more for pigs than for humanity…(Coe & Coe. 2013)” in his 1575 History of the New World, but this was changing, and Europeans understood its value in the new world as Jose De Acosta writes in his treatise Natural and Moral History published in 1590:

“The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum like bubbling… it is a valued drink which the Indians offer to the lords who come or pass through their land. And the Spanish men even more the Spanish women-are addicted to the black chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013).”

Eventually Europeans adapted the chocolate drink to be more palatable by warming it,adding spices such as cinnamon and vanilla, and most importantly, sugar (Mintz, 1985).

Chocolate as Medicine

There are many reasons Spanish settlers in New Spain adapted the chocolate drink to be

11th century Spanish diagram of Humors and their characteristics inside the body. chocolate was disputed to have many different characteristics making it appealing for all Europeans.

more pleasing, among them were shortage of wine, the aristocratic status bestowed upon drinkers by native culture, and finally, medicinal reasons. Europeans in New Spain had witnessed the use cacao and the chocolate drink among the indigenous population for a variety of healing purposes. Bernadino De Sahagun, a Spanish monk who traveled to New Spain in 1529 wrote extensively on the indigenous flora and of the native people’s knowledge of plants for medicinal purposes including the chocolate drink made from cacao (Lippi, 2013). European medicine was still following the traditions of the Classical Greeks Hippocrates who theorized that the imbalance of humors, blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, caused disease, and Galen who expanded the theory to include characteristics of hot, cold, dry, and moist to humors, diseases, and their cures. It is within this framework that the chocolate drink became popular medicinally in Europe to keep the humors balanced and diseases at bay (Coe &Coe, 2013).

The Church

While the Catholic church traded in chocolate and even participated in innovating chocolate recipes as Guatemalan nuns had made chocolate in tablet form that could easily be dissolved in hot water (Coe & Coe, 2013) , the church was not always so accepting of the drink, prompting it’s promotion as a medicinal. Pilar Zazueta, a lecturer in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin states,

 “The Catholic Church worked to eradicate local indigenous beliefs, but it was not entirely successful. The records of the Inquisition authorities in Central America contain numerous stories of indigenous or mestizo women accused of using enchanted chocolate beverages to control men. Women and men of all walks of life visited these “witches” or healers and asked them to prepare chocolate drinks to attract lovers, break up marriages or improve sexual performance. The Church tried to ban chocolate but people in the Americas were too attached to it (2013)”

In her paper “Chocolate in History; Food, Medicine,” Medi-Food, Donnatella Lippi asserts that chocolate’s euphoriant effects invalidated its use during a religious fast. To counter the suspicious nature of the church Lippi states, “doctors hastened to assert that chocolate was a healthy substance and used this argument to promote its pleasurable effects, consequently boosting the lucrative trade in this exotic import (Lippi, 2013). While the church had little to do with the morality of chocolate outside of this question, its suspicious nature was indirectly involved with the increase in popularity in a health obsessed Europe.

The Intersection

While one would not think of the church or chocolate as prompting slavery, African slavery in the Americas was a direct result of their interaction. With Europe’s medical community promoting the health benefits of the chocolate drink, to ease suspicions of Europeans and the clergy, chocolate was becoming popular all over Western Europe as a medicinal drink. Because the European palate found the cacao drink in its original form repugnant, it had been hybridized to be taken hot, with spices and a critical ingredient- sugar. Because of the high demand for sweetened chocolate inspired by a church-avoidant industry, massive labor was needed to meet the new demand for cacao and sugar cane, and with the indigenous populations dwindling from foreign disease and abuse, plantation owners looked to Africa to solve their labor problem.

Chattel Slavery


Pope Benedict XIV issued the “Immensa Pastorum Principis” in 1741 condemning slavery of native people prompting plantation owners to seek free labor in Africa outside of the churches prohibitions.


By the end of the 17th century the Mesoamerican population had been decimated and labor was scarce. Only 10% of the native population survived old-world diseases and abusive labor practices of plantation owners. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Coe & Coe describe it as, “the greatest demographic catastrophe the planet has ever known (2013). After the church condemned slavery of the Mesoamerican population, to avoid the church, the industry looked to where the church had no say – Africa. The Middle Passage across the Atlantic to Africa was out of the grasp of anti-slavery decrees where the majority of western European countries were more than happy to pluck free labor. The labor crisis was over as Coe & Coe state, “it has been estimated that in the period 1650 to 1750, 20,000 slaves arrived annually in Curacas, and after 1750, sometimes up to a 100,000 a year (2013).” Native labor was replaced with imported Africans that I am sure the Catholic church could have never foreseen, it is nevertheless a product of the church and chocolate intersecting.

Works Cited

 Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.) London, ENG. Thames    & Hudson Ltd.

De Montour, A. (Artist). n.d. Pope Benedict XIV [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Benedict_XIV.jpg

De Osma, B. (Artist). 11th C. Humors [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_humors_(11th_c.,_Burgos_de_Osma).jpg

Handorf Chocolates (Owner) 2006. Hot Chocolate [Digital Image]. Hot Chocolate Retreived from Wikimedia Commons Website https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hahndorf_Hot_Chocolate.jpg

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients, 5(5), 1573–        1584. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu5051573

Mintz, S.W. (1986) Sweetness and Power. NY, NY. Penguin Books 1986

Zazueta, P. (Feb. 2013) You Can Thank the Ancient North Americans For Your Valentine’s   Chocolate. Dallas News. Retrieved from           http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/02/13/can-thank-ancient-north-americans-valentines-chocolate