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Sugar, tea and a slice of history

The growth of sugar somewhat parallels that of tea in that both were Eastern goods that led to the creation of a Western industry

The history of tea and sugar are intertwined.
The history of tea and sugar are intertwined. (Pixabay)

The new cook examines my kitchen. She has only one request: a cup of tea at 11am. I open my shelf inviting her to try the teas I have collected. One look at her face and I point to where the CTC is. She looks relieved. I try to interest her in my teas. I show her the puerh brick, the whole-leaf teas. It’s not tea if it’s without milk and sugar, she says.

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How did sugar and black tea meet and become so entwined? The growth of the sugar industry somewhat parallels that of tea in that both were Eastern goods that led to the creation of a Western industry. People the world over now see both tea and sugar as staples and that’s because the Western world’s appetite for them led to large-scale production systems.

Tea was China’s crop while sugarcane was native to New Guinea and India. Tea arrived in Europe in the 1600s but sugar came much earlier, as early as 11 AD. Sugar’s journey through history is complex and if you are interested, do pick up Sweetness And Power by anthropologist Sidney Mintz or watch culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal’s YouTube video on The History Of Sugar.

Sugar was grouped with other spices, a rare and expensive import for Europe, an ingredient afforded by the rich in the 15th century. Sugar began to find greater use in the British kitchen, from being used as a condiment to giving rise to a range of sweetened dishes like custards and pastries (accompanying tea). For the working class, tea sweetened with sugar became a warming drink, offering quick calories. Mintz says in his book, “The success of tea, like the less resounding success of coffee and chocolate, was also the success of sugar.... That it was a bitter stimulant, that it was taken hot, and that it was capable of carrying large quantities of palatable sweet calories told importantly in its success.” By the 1850s, the consumption of both tea and sugar was on the rise in England.

While South Asia saw the creation of large-scale tea plantations, sugarcane plantations came up in the Americas and later the Caribbean driven by slavery. When slavery was abolished, indentured workers were brought from far-flung corners, including India. All this to feed a growing demand for sugar in Europe. Sugar, like tea, has a terrible backstory.

Both significantly impacted the turns in world history, in trade, politics and social movements. In India, in the early 20th century, faced with surplus tea, the East India Company turned to the vast Indian populace, a potential market. Dalal says the British made tea breaks in government offices and mills mandatory as part of their tea promotion.

With fine tea dust offering a strong and quick infusing cup, and costing less than orthodox or whole leaf teas, the milky brew became an essential part of the daily diet.

Tea Takes: There are many CTC options that are flavourful and don’t need the heavy-handed boiling with milk and sugar. These include brands like Halmari, Hookhmol and Koliabur, Goodricke Khaas tea and Darmona Premium.

Also read | Teas to try in a brand new year

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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