Are you one of the roughly 90% of humans who have a “sweet tooth?” If so, you’re not (necessarily) childish or greedy! Our bodies need sugar to perform some vital functions, but for most of human history our access to sugar has been limited, so an in-built impulse to consume it whenever possible was actually helpful. We can get dietary sugars from more complex foods like carbohydrates, but refined sugars offer the purest and most seductive hit. The industrial processing of first cane and then beets made refined sugar available on an unprecedented scale — but other sources of sugars and sweet flavors have been around even longer than those ubiquitous white crystals.
Although my current Speakers Bureau talk, “Sticky Subject: The History and Culture of Sugar,” focuses on the impact of cane sugar, I’m always on the lookout for alternative sources of sweetness. Partly it’s a health thing — I try to take a break from refined sugars once a year or so — but I also find these sweeteners to be just as fascinating as they are delicious. Here are five surprising ways that humans coax sweet flavors out of the natural world.
“I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m tired.” I heard these words a lot as I marched my mother around Japan’s sites of interest last November. I might have lost her forever at one mountain village had I not spotted a sign bearing two of the few kanji characters I can read: “sweet” and “sake.” I quickly bought her a cup of amazake, a thick, sweet, nourishing, and infinitely comforting beverage; I waited until later to tell her that it’s essentially moldy rice. Amazake became an unplanned theme of our trip and we sampled our way through options ranging from cheaper “instant” versions made using the byproducts of rice wine production, to artisanal versions made from scratch in small batches. Making amazake is a matter of stirring together cooked grain with the fungus aspergillus orzyea (called “koji” in Japanese) and keeping the gloop at an optimal temperature for a few days. The koji dismantles the carbohydrates in the grain, breaking it down into its constituent simple sugars. You can taste-test this delectable transformation in your own home using cooked rice and freeze-dried koji from your nearest Asian market.
Squishy strawberries, bruised bananas, mushy apples: none of these make my mouth water. But a nearly-rotten medlar? Yes, please! A member of the rose family, the medlar was a popular fruit in both ancient Rome and medieval Europe. In more recent times it has lost favor, possibly in part because it looks something like a rosehip redesigned by an eight-year-old boy with a scatological sense of humor. The common names it has enjoyed over the years probably can’t be reprinted here; when I describe it to other foragers I usually say to look for something that resembles a cat’s behind. Add to all that: a medlar is at its best when brown-fleshed, mushy, and oozing. A firm, fresh medlar is virtually inedible; the fruit must be allowed or forced to “blet”, or decompose slightly. Medlars ripen in winter so bletting is often accomplished on the branch by a good frost cycle, but they can also be bletted indoors on trays. The result is something like a good applesauce: soft, sweet, and complex. It can be eaten as–is, or cooked into a membrillo-like “cheese” or custardy pie.
Chocolate’s key ingredient is a flavorful but bitter bean that grows inside a cacao tree’s football-shaped pods. The beans are cushioned by a sweet, milky-white mucilage that drains away as the beans are spread out to dry and ferment. In many cacao-growing areas, the profitable beans are sent off to market, while the perishable mucilage is used to make desserts and drinks for local consumption. The proprietor of the tiny Chocoleto shop in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, has come up with novel method for remarrying these two components; Jose Rualdo Cuellar Soto blends the roasted, ground beans of premium Chiapan cacao with reserved mucilage to create a classically rich, gritty, and sweet puck of Mexican chocolate — without any refined sugars.
We perceive sugars as being “sweet” because their molecular form snaps into that particular flavor receptor on our tongues. But just as you can wreak havoc by force-fitting a puzzle piece into the wrong spot, the berries of the West African synsepalum dulcificum prevent us from connecting certain foods with their usual flavor profiles. The fruit contains a protein molecule called “miraculin” that temporarily plugs up the receptors normally reserved for sweet flavors. For about 30 minutes after you eat a so-called “miracle fruit” any bland and sour foods will taste intensely sweet. At a “flavor-tripping” party I once drank enough straight vinegar and lemon juice to give myself a stomach ache, and I enjoyed every drop of it! The fruit is widely available in parts of Asia, where it is used as a supplement for diabetics and others on sugar-restricted diets. At some low-calorie cafes in Japan you can treat yourself to a slice of beautiful but bland unsweetened patisserie–just make sure to eat the accompanying tablet of dried miracle berry first!
The sweetness that we prize in certain fruits and vegetables is nothing less than edible sunshine, solar energy transformed through photosynthesis into sugars a plant can store for future use. Plants direct and concentrate these sugars in accordance with their plans for reproduction or growth, and so we may eat different parts of a plant in different seasons. Tender spring shoots feature in the holiday Nowruz, a celebration of all things spring. Popularly known as “Persian New Year,” Nowruz is widely observed in Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of China, and by Tajiks, Indians, Kurds, and Azerbijianis. It starts at the vernal equinox and continues for 13 days with food and activities that promote cleansing, renewal, and fertility. About a week prior to the start of Nowruz, cooks begin to soak wheat berries, carefully watching and changing their water until they sprout. As the grains prepare to grow they become intensely sweet — think of maple syrup, but on a very small scale. At that stage, they are made into Samanu, a sweet pudding that will take a place of honor on a display table laden with auspicious treats and symbols.
Sources of sweetness other than cane or beet sugar are often labeled “alternative” and lauded as fads or quick fixes. On the contrary, many of these flavors have a long history and a complex relationship with the people who enjoy them. Each of these flavors represents a generations-long practice of ingenuity, experimentation, and information sharing.