India is the original home of both sugarcane cultivation and sugar manufacture. Sugar, the high end “fine spice” of the Asia and Middle East, was responsible not only for large changes in our diets, but also was a starting point in the development of large European trade in between 17th and 19th century that allowed sugar to finally become bulk commodity that is used by everyone.
Sugar was first produced from sugarcane plants in northern India sometime after the first century CE. The derivation of the word “sugar” is thought to be from Sanskrit word,sharkara, meaning “ground or candied sugar,” but originally means “grit or gravel”.
The earliest reference to Sugar can be found in the ancient vedic text of Atharva Veda. Susrutha Samhita lists 12 different varieties of Sugar. The best were called Vamshika, with thin reeds and Paundraka which came from the Bengal region. Even today Bengal produces some of the best sweets in the world using sugar syrup as a major ingredient.
The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became important centres for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.
During the years 1625 to 1750, Sugar was worth its weight in gold and was referred to as “White Gold”. To make it cheaper Europeans opened the slave trade in the Caribbean islands, where the native american slaves were made to cultivate and grow sugar cane.
Indian mythology contains some legends showing the origin of sugarcane. It is said that the growth of sugar industry is full of tales of adventure and conquest.
Sources claim that the first written reference to sugar occurs in 325 B.C. after the conquest of Persia and attempted invasion of India by Alexander the Great. It was in India that Alexander first encountered sugar, cardamom, and rice. It is said that one of Alexander’s admirals, Nearchus, while sailing down the Indus river wrote to his amazement of “a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees.” Infact the reference to honey indicates not simply because of the sweetness of the new found sugar but also to its color that the Indians had not yet developed the process of creating clear white crystals. He also noted the Indians consumed a pudding made of rice, milk, sugar, and cardamom, what today we might calla‘sweet rice’.
Sources claim that The Buddhist monks from India who went to spread Buddhism introduced Sugarcane in China at around 110 BCE.
The techniques involved in making sugar were heating and cooling, seeding, and agitation of the syrup to produce various qualities and refinement of the sugar. These techniques were passed down to a select few, from master to beginner.
With great help from industry, 18th century sugar production became more mechanized and efficient, ending the need for hard labor workforce. With the help of steam engine, powered sugar mills started emerging all around the world, enabling workers to produce sugar 24 hours a day.