Where do desserts come from?  The history of DESSERT

This may come as no surprise, but the concept of dessert as we know it – as a sweet food eaten at the end of a meal, or even as a sinful snack – is a recent phenomenon, in terms of our greater history.  The history of dessert, in terms of the idea of “sweets,” goes back to when people reclined.  Exactly- this was a long-ago era, when only the very wealthy ate sugar-sweetened foods.  Why?  Because it was super-expensive to refined sugar before it became the big industry it is now.


photo by cursedthing, from Flickr

There’s a great little interview that NPR’s Robert Smith did recently on the history of dessert, based on the publication of Michael Krondl’s book, Sweet Invention.  So what are some of the oldest desserts?  One is biscotti.  It was developed in Italy in the mid-1500s, out of need to make sweet food that could be durable and transportable, as in travel by boat.  Initially they were bread that was baked, and then baked again so it would become stiff and travel-ready; that evolved into cake that was twice-baked…flour, butter, sugar, and some nuts, typically sliced almonds.

The Middle East also factors heavily into the history of dessert, particularly the Ottoman Empire, during which the great dessert baklava originated.  Since then it has been proudly claimed by many countries, including Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, and Afghanistan.  It’s a pistachio-based, flaky pastry that has sticky, syrupy interior.


baklava; photo by balise42, from Flickr

Refined sugar’s oldest origins, meanwhile, date back to India of 2000 or more years ago (possibly even 2500).  In order to preserve desserts, the Indians evolved a process in which refined sugar was combined with milk and then boiled down, condensing the dessert and providing it with a longer life.

The history of refined sugar desserts

A couple of the better examples of ancient Indian desserts are barfi (aka burfi), and a donut-like ball called gulab jamun.  Barfi is a super-sweet block of dessert that’s fudge-like in consistency, made from a mixture of sugar, milk, butter and one other ingredient, such as pistachios or coconut.

Gulab jamun is a very old version of the modern donut, often a cake-like ball that’s fried in ghee, or clarified butter.  As these sweet indulgences were, and are still, used as offerings to the gods, we can think of them as the true holy donut.


barfi; photo by secretlondon 123, from Flickr


gabul jamun; photo by ukanda, from Flickr

Here are some important takeaways we can glean from this colorful history:  desserts which were sugar-based were very expensive due to the rarity of sugar, and so only consumed by the wealthiest.  The subtext here – whether it’s actually completely true or not – is that these desserts were treated as very special treats, and not taken for granted.  With the ubiquity of sugar now, on the other hand, its eaten like air, and there’s very little reverence.

Part of our evolution, as both human beings and as conscious eaters, it seems to me, is to head back in the direction of deeply appreciating sugar-sweetened foods by limiting our consumption of them…not necessarily only to special occasions a few times a year, but, I don’t know…once or twice a week? 

We’re early in the process of re-writing the history of dessert by choosing more unrefined sugar-sweetened foods, whether fruits, or dried fruits, or plant-based sweeteners.  Most importantly, it’s about finding ways to emphasize something other than the sugars (and, ideally, flours) in a given dessert, so that there’s more chocolate than sugar, more grain than sugar, more yogurt than sure, or more fruit than sugar.  And better yet, when we do use sugar, if we’re using raw honey, or maple syrup, or unprocessed molasses, or stevia, we’ll be even better off, and our evolution will once again be heading in the right direction.

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