Tag Archives: sweets

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

Dessert: An Embodiment of Societal Values

Illustrated by Carmen Naujokat, this phrase is displayed in kitchens of rebellious dessert enthusiasts. However, it was not until the late seventeenth century that sweets were commonly served at the end of meals (Mintz 131). By looking at the definition of dessert, it is clear that we first gave meaning to the word, and then the word gave structure to our daily routines.
Illustrated by Carmen Naujokat, this phrase is displayed in kitchens of rebellious dessert enthusiasts. However, it was not until the late seventeenth century that sweets were commonly served at the end of meals (Mintz 131). By looking at the definition of dessert, it is clear that we first gave meaning to the word, and then the word gave structure to our daily routines.

If one ever wanted a fast way of determining the values a society holds in highest regard, he may not have to look farther than the chocolate cupcake on the kitchen counter – or in the case of sixteenth century England, the sugar sculpture on the mantle. Dessert is defined as “the sweet, usually last course of a meal” (“Dessert”). Broken down, this definition provides us with two key elements involved in the historical formulation of dessert. Firstly, it is sweet, as dessert evolved from sugar. Secondly, it is usually the last course of a meal. Dessert’s enjoyment is heavily centered upon its meaning. By examining dessert’s historical evolution in England we see how throughout eras, the meaning attached to dessert has consistently changed to match what society views as most important in life.

Life events are surrounded by dessert related connotations. Pop culture and societal norms reinforce these, making them even stronger and more widely accepted.

Today it is considered commonsense that sugar is sweet; nonetheless, upon its arrival to Europe in 1100 A.D., sugar was classified as a spice (Mintz 79). Grouped together with flavors like ginger and nutmeg, sugar made its first appearances in English cuisine in savory meat and vegetable dishes.

 ManCakes Bakery’s “Buffalo Wing” cupcake involves a “spice base filled with tangy blue cheese cheesecake mousse, topped with a hot sauce buttercream and crispy chicken crumble” (The Cupcakes). Although savory desserts are considered a 2015 food trend (Blair), the union of sugar, spices, and meat dates back to the 12th century.
ManCakes Bakery’s “Buffalo Wing” cupcake involves a “spice base filled with tangy blue cheese cheesecake mousse, topped with a hot sauce buttercream and crispy chicken crumble” (The Cupcakes). Although savory desserts are considered a 2015 food trend (Blair), the union of sugar, spices, and meat dates back to the 12th century.

In sugar’s infancy, it represented status and wealth, which was most sought after at this time. Nobility displayed sugar décor, showcasing how it was expensive and rare. These displays, called “subtleties”, were served in between courses and came in various shapes and sizes (88-89). Sugar’s transformation began as it worked its way down the socio economic ladder into the lives of the upper-middle class whose values were more centered in family and comfort. “As a decoration, sugar was obviously important in ceremonial contexts, such as weddings, birthday parties, and funerals, where sculptured sugar could serve to memorialize” (Mintz 122), demonstrating that it is not our love for sweets that motivates us to place them at the center of special occasions, but our desire to attach meaning to everything we do. Little variation amongst recipes existed until Mrs. Glasse published The Compleat Confectioner in 1760, marking a new era for sweets. This time subtleties were more elaborate, and were decorated with “fruits, nuts of all kinds, creams, jellies, syllabubs, biscuits, etc.” (94). As sugar became inexpensive and abundant, a diversification of sweets occurred, which led to the creation of dessert.

Desserts today, like this croquembouche cake, are still decorative. Few sweet dishes are served without consideration of aesthetic appeal, despite the fact that they are no longer used to showcase wealth. Without status as our motivator, what meaning must we attach to dessert that so inclines us to embellish it?

In addition to decorative sugar, sugar existed in three forms: “spices and dragées, sweet and sweetened alcoholic drinks, and baked sweet dishes” (131). Sweet alcoholic drinks, such as ale, and sweetened alcoholic drinks, such as distilled honey, largely conditioned the English sweet tooth (132), making them more receptive to the concept of dessert. Baked sweets, which began to appear in English cookbooks in the fifteenth century, are of interest to us, as they are primarily responsible for the standardization of a dessert meal. In England, dessert started out as pudding (133) and was served at the end of the meal in imitation of the French custom. Hence, the word dessert is likely derived from the French “desservir” meaning, “to clear the table” (“Dessert”).

This still does not explain the reasoning behind dessert’s placement at the end of the meal. From a sociological perspective, this order would ensure that dessert is the most remembered dish, as nobility used it to flaunt their fortunes when sugar was scarce. Scientifically speaking, glucose found in sweets increases energy levels when metabolized, producing an energy boost after consuming heavy foods. As mentioned previously, sugar was served as a spice, and food was so heavily mashed “that its distinctive taste was concealed” (Mintz 85). From a culinary standpoint, it was likely served last as flavors and textures became separated in English cuisine. Regardless of the correct explanation, dessert’s role as the final course is vital to its identity. A brownie eaten while running to work does not invoke the same positive response or significance that a true, after-dinner dessert does.

Nowadays, dessert symbolizes what present day society values most. It is difficult to imagine a birthday without cake or a Christmas without pie. Weddings are a perfect example of our dedication to dessert, as we spend approximately five hundred dollars on these confections (Naylor). The desserts we serve legitimize holidays and provide us with tradition, which brings us comfort. We care which dessert is paired with each special occasion because we have attached significance to these desserts.

One would think that most would prefer to indulge on any other day, as on these days cheesecake, cream-puffs, and brownies are all equally appropriate. However, this is not true for most people, as it is the meaning attached to desserts we eat on special occasions and at structured times, that makes them so entirely enjoyable. Dessert always symbolized what society held as life’s most important values. In historical times this was power and status. Today, it is the appreciation of family, tradition, and life accomplishments, such as Christmas gatherings and marriages.

 

Works Cited

Blair, Kate. “2015 Food Trend: Savory Desserts.” The Groupon Local Merchant Blog.       Groupon, 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.             <https://www.grouponworks.com/merchant-blog/food-drink/2015-food-trend-          savory-desserts/>.

Buffalo Wing Cupcake, ManCakes Bakery. Personal photograph by author. 2015.

Croquembouche. N.d. New York. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Google Images Advanced Search. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4026/4583927923_01c6fc333d.jpg&gt;.

Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.           <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dessert&gt;.

“Friends Crappy Ice Cream.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 June 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZEPDXIO_F8&gt;.

Life is short. Eat Dessert first. Illustration., Vancouver. Personal photograph by author. 2015.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York:   Penguin, 1985. Print.

Naylor, Sharon. “Wedding Cake Prices: 20 Ways To Save Big.” The Huffington Post.         TheHuffingtonPost.com, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.             <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/12/wedding-cake-  prices_n_3423921.html>.

“The Cupcakes.” MancakesBakery. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.       <http://mancakesbakery.com/the-cupcakes/&gt;.