Jaggery. Piloncillo. Muscovado. Names for new punk rock bands? Guess again. They’re all sugar, made from either the juice of a grassy cane or tree sap. With the rise of interest in ethnic cuisines, the curious seeker of new ingredients need look no further than this most common of staples to find a world of subtle differences.
Check the shelves of your local ethnic market, bakery supply store or specialty food outlet, and you will discover that sugar doesn’t need to be white, free-flowing or crystalline to be good. In fact, even large-scale sugar manufacturers, seeing a growing market for exotic and less processed products, are rolling out washed raw sugar and evaporated cane juice along with their common granulated and superfine varieties.
It was probably inevitable. Just when you thought one ingredient was safe and simple, new (or should we say old) varieties have begun to appear with increasing regularity even on your neighborhood supermarket shelf.
But a long and checkered history has led to those familiar boxes and bags of refined sugar.
Sugar cane was domesticated in New Guinea. It spread west from there thousands of years ago; the first records of making sugar from the sap are in India. The Arabs introduced sugar cane to the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, and for a long time most of Europe’s sugar was imported from Egypt. The Arabs also began cultivating it in Moorish Spain and Sicily.
In the medieval Arab world, sugar refining had developed into a factory industry. From the 15th century on, the world’s growing taste for things sweet led to the establishment of vast sugar plantations in tropical countries from Madeira to the Canary Islands to Brazil and points in between.
Columbus introduced sugar to the New World, planting sugar cane on Hispaniola, an island in the West Indies, on his second voyage; he’d brought sugar-making equipment and specialists with him. Plantations were also set up in Mexico. Much of the sugar made in the 16th and 17th centuries was scarcely refined, like the piloncillo, for which Mexico still has a taste.
Despite the world’s growing taste for white sugar, the products sold in ethnic food stores today are still a fair approximation of the sugar of thousands of years ago.
With its strong, almost smoky undertone and molasses personality, India’s jaggery--made from cane juice or the sap of several varieties of palm tree--is full of flavor.
In modern India, the darker, more flavorful jaggery varieties are being replaced by refined sugar. Still, as a mark of status and wealth, affluent Indian families might serve a platter of 18 to 20 kinds of jaggery--each with a distinctive flavor--with tea, in much the same way that Europeans end a meal with a selection of ripened cheeses.
In fact, in many parts of the world, sugar in its raw form is considered a health food (remember that 16th century apothecaries stocked it exclusively for the sick, but don’t tell the kids!). Today, nursing mothers in Mexico enjoy atole, a cornmeal-based drink sweetened with piloncillo to ensure that their breast milk is nutritionally complete.
Pastry chefs love the complexity of these ethnic sugars and use them in everything from the topping on an Indian-inspired creme bru^lee to a syrup that elevates the humble bread pudding into something soul-satisfying and sweet, but not too sweet.
The Mexican classic cafe de olla (spiced coffee cooked in an earthenware pot) blends strong coffee with lots of cinnamon sticks, cloves and anise and is sweetened with piloncillo, adding a pleasantly bitter note to the ensemble.
Chef and Mexican food authority Rick Bayless notes that the darker the piloncillo, the stronger its flavor. “It’s a much more sophisticated sweetness than refined brown sugar,” he says, “which is just white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into the mix.”
In Nancy Silverton’s pastry kitchen at Los Angeles’ Campanile, muscovado sugar, the product of evaporating and recrystallizing organic sugar cane juice, sweetens a classic French custard-based ice cream. “I love to use it for its complexity of flavor,” she says. “It’s not just sweet but has real flavor, which is translated into a golden ice cream.”
On the savory side, Indian and Mexican cooks might add a pinch of their native sugars to hot and spicy dishes to gentle and marry the flavors in the dish.
Mexican cooks soften chipotle’s bite by adding a lump of dark sugar, pried from a truncated cone of piloncillo. Suvir Saran, a chef and caterer in New York City, loves to use the jaggery of his homeland in everything from fruit chutneys to a sweet samosa.
In Shanghai, Grace Young, author of “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” uses Chinese rock sugar to give a hauntingly sweet edge to braised meat dishes and sweetened soups and puddings.
Washington, D.C.-based pastry chef Steve Klc loves to use date sugar to coat his pa^te de fruits, soft fruit jellies made from mango, apricot and passion fruit.
Sugar is not just sweet anymore.