A deep dive into natural, traditional sweeteners in the Indian Kitchen.
As I explored the world of spices, I realised that, like with any cuisine, that the building blocks of flavour cannot stand in isolation. Any ingredient may have a dominant flavour, but will be bolstered by the others. This is especially true when it comes to Indian cuisine. For some reason we always focus on spices, thoughtlessly, perhaps, conveniently, attributing the with being the most diverse flavour reporters in the Indian kitchen. But, take a moment to widen the perspective and the value of each flavour family - sweet, bitter, sour, salty and hot becomes. And each of these families has a lot of members!
Lets start with sweet. The sweet taste is of course the most loved, and with reason. As humans we evolved a genetic conditioning to gravitate towards sweet-flavoured foods. Sweet foods (along with fatty ones) were sources of rapid energy. Over generations both our primate and hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to seek out sweet flavoured food , discovering a multitude of naturally available sweeteners, adapting them into our diets and with time creating ways to produce larger and larger quantities.
When it comes to India, we are perhaps one of the cultures with the sweetest of sweet tooths! “Muh meetha karna,” “muh me ghee shakkar,” “kuchh meetha ho jaye,” are all familiar phrases that remind us that sweetness holds the highest regard In Indian culture. Not to mention the fact that the extraction of sugar cane juice from the sugarcane plant, and the plant’s subsequent domestication both took place in tropical India and Southeast Asia. India also went on to invent the manufacture of cane sugar granules from sugarcane juice, figured out refining them. No wonder then that no ceremony, auspicious occasion, or a new beginning can be celebrated without something sweet to mark the occasion and bring good fortune even if it is a simple morsel of Gol-Dhana, Gud-Channa or Dahi-Cheeni!
In fact say meetha and one will envision halwas, Kheer and Kesari Bhaat, Undai and Laddoo, Pithas and Paayesh. With Mithai sweet is the primary flavour. But that said, sweet flavours are present in our food in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways! Be it in the natural sweetness of certain fruits, vegetables or starchy foods we cook, or in our sweet chutneys and murrabbas. But also the sweet notes added to dishes; that dash of jaggery with kokum in Gujarati Daal or Maharashtrian Aamtis, that bit of sugar in so many Bengali dishes, the gur or sugar added to balance tartness of the tamarind, tomato or mango in chutneys and pickles such as North Indian Shaljam pickle, Mumbai Imli chutney, Maharashtrian Kairi Methamba or Bengali Tamatar Chutney..
Unfortunately sugar being cheap and accessible, it has become the primary form of sweetener in Indian kitchens. Which is sad, because the variety of traditional natural sweeteners, that sugar side-lined, added so many shades of sweetness to Indian cuisine!
Long before sugar we had honey, first foraged, then farmed, also fruits and flowers like Monk fruit and Mahua, then came seasonal and regional forms of molasses and jaggery. And eventually sugar in organic and then refined form as we know it today. In fact the love for sugar has led to options of sugar made from coconut, stevia and more! But that’s a whole other blogpost. Right now, me being me, I’ve jumped down that rabbit hole, that is traditional sweeteners in the Indian kitchen via a brand new series of blog posts called Sweet Explorations in my favourite medium, the old fashioned written word. Join me over the next few weeks as I going to explore natural, traditional sweeteners in Indian home kitchens chronologically from the perspective of history, culture, nuances of usage and varied applications for taste and flavour.
So without further ado, lets begin our sweet explorations. Since one of the first and oldest naturally occurring sweeteners, used by humankind was Honey, (alongside fruits and certain vegetables) it is only natural our journey begin with its sweet notes! Please join me, over the next few weeks to learn about honey in the Indian context. And do leave comments if you have anything to share about sweeteners.