A story from about 2,500 years ago captures this foment. Two brothers were leading a merchant caravan of ox-drawn carts out of the town of Bodh Gaya in northeastern India when they noticed a man sitting beside the road. He was dressed in rags. Something about him caught the brothers’ attention. “Stop!” they hollered back to the cart drivers. The brothers sent a boy to run back and dip into their stores.
The boy fished out a container of milk and some road food; accounts vary regarding exactly what it was. In some it’s a knob of peeled sugarcane; in some, honey; in others a more stick-to-the-ribs concoction, rice cakes or sweet rice balls made with milk, honey, and molasses.
“Go ahead, eat!” the brothers yelled as the boy thrust the food at the man. They had a schedule to keep; an act of kindness could not take all day. But the man hesitated. Then he bit into the cake and smiled.
The man was Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. This incident took place a few weeks after his enlightenment. Buddhist scriptures say his insight, gleaned after a long struggle, freed the former prince from his desires: the cravings for food, sex, money, and success that cause the world endless trouble. Buddhism holds that all experience is tainted by cravings. For a while, Siddhartha had starved himself trying to extinguish them, but that had only made him crave food more. Now, thanks to his enlightened state, Siddhartha apparently ate the sweet treat with no trace of these cravings, just simple enjoyment.
This account from ancient times captures a world grappling with this intense new sensation, whose pure taste and granular form made it preferable to honey. The Buddha lived in a sugarcane-growing region, and during his lifetime, India was starting to develop sugar refining into an industrial art, and created the world’s first dessert cuisine.
References to sugar started to appear in poetry, medicinal advice, and official records around the same time, including the Arthasastra, a governing manual written around 300 BC by a bureaucrat named Kautilya. He noted sugar’s different forms in order of rising quality: guta, sarkara, and khanda (the second two are the roots of “sugar” and “candy”; sarkara is Sanskrit for “gravelly”). Members of the Jain sect, forbidden to kill even the tiniest living creature, could not eat honey because it might contain bee embryos. They turned to matsyandika, or sugar candy. Sugar was thought to keep the forces that ricocheted around the body in balance. Indian doctors believed eating it conferred special healing powers, helped digestion, and made semen more potent. According to an Indian book of cures from the second century BC: “In such a man’s body even poison becomes innocuous; his limbs grow hard and compact like stone; he becomes invulnerable.” One elixir of ginger, licorice, gum, ghee, honey, and sugar, if sipped each day for three years, was thought to guarantee a century of youth.
The two merchant brothers from the above tale, Tapassu and Bhallika, became the Buddha’s first lay disciples: they continued to spread the Buddhist message on their travels. This reflects the later historical reality: to generate income, Buddhist monks tended sugarcane and refined it. Over hundreds of years, both traders and Buddhist monks traveled the Silk Road, spreading sugarcane and the means for refining it.