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Sugar’s foundational role in Chinese cuisine
Chinese people have used sugar to give flavour, structure and texture to their cuisine for centuries. Sugarcane is a major crop in southern China, especially in the Guangxi, Yunnan and Hainan provinces, and in western Guangdong. In 2022/23, China produced 9.7million tonnes of sugar—including 1.1 million tonnes of beet sugar—making it one of the world’s largest sugar producers.
History, culture and influences
Native to South-East Asia, sugarcane has been grown in China since at least the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE). In the Tang dynasty (618—907), Buddhist pilgrims returned from India with a higher-yielding breed of cane and a new method for producing huge amounts of sugar that some manufacturers still use to make certain types of pure sugars today. Cane juice is squeezed out of the stalks, strained, then boiled and evaporated before congealing. The resulting sticky syrup is poured into a mould, solidified, cut into blocks and transported. In Zhuotian, a town in Longyan, Fujian province, locals have been making ‘black sugar’ this way since the start of the Ming dynasty in 1368.
Chinese cooks have been heavily sugaring foods to preserve them for over a thousand years. Sugar was also used in religious ceremonies, in rites associated with temple openings. Today, there are big regional variations in how sugar is used in local cuisines. For instance, people from Guangzhou don’t use much sugar in their dishes; it is used to enhance flavours, rather than sweeten. However, in the capital Beijing, sweet treats like cincau (grass jelly) and sweet soups abound.
Yummy umami: savoury Chinese sauces
Umami is the fifth flavour, alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The rich, deep savoury flavour of Chinese cuisine’s best-loved dishes in the West is down to umami. Usually derived from foods that have an amino acid known as glutamate, you can find it in soy sauce, miso paste, fish sauce, Parmesan cheese and Marmite.
Sugar enhances umami, rounding out and softening savoury flavours. For that reason, you’ll find molasses, or black sugar—the Chinese version of molasses—in one of China’s most popular sauces, known to chefs in the US and UK as ‘umami sauce’. It’s used as a base for some of Chinese cuisine’s most famous sauces. The striking flavours of black bean sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce all revolve around a firm umami foundation, which comes as a paste as often as a sauce.
Soy sauce, a sweet rice wine called mirin, bonito flakes (called katsuobushi in Cantonese), white miso paste and sesame oil join sugar to make this endlessly versatile sauce base that can also be used as a basting or finishing sauce, dipping sauce, stir fry sauce, or basted over grilled meats, vegetables or tofu.
Rock sugar for tea: sweetening China’s most famous drink
Rock sugar has royal roots. During the reign of the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese monk discovered the original process of making rock sugar by boiling the syrup that comes directly from sugarcane and dripping the sticky liquid down bamboo shoots. Crystal rock sugar forms when it cools. Known as ‘sugar frost’, this traditional version is very similar to today’s ‘yellow rock sugar’.
Yellow rock sugar ranges in colour from amber to vibrant yellow, in crystals ranging from the size of tiny pebbles to stone-sized chunks. Because yellow rock sugar is made from minimally refined cane sugar, it’s closer in taste to demerara sugar than ‘regular’ white crystalline sugar. It has a deeper flavour, making it perfect for pungent Chinese teas like green tea, yellow tea, white tea, oolong tea, black tea, dark tea or fermented tea and Pu’er tea.
Hong tang ci ba: glutinous rice cakes with liquid sugar
Popular Sichuan sweet treat hong tang ci ba is a moist, sticky and chewy pounded glutinous rice cake, deep-fried and eaten with liquid sugar and a sprinkle of roasted soybean flour.
‘Hong tang’ means brown sugar, while ‘ci’ means sticky and ‘ba’ means cake. Ci ba is popular in South China, especially in the Sichuan province. They are both popular everyday snacks and special occasion food, eaten over big celebrations like the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
The enduring popularity of traditional sweet treats like hong tang ci ba, and sugar’s role as a functional and essential ingredient for China’s food industry, mean that despite being a major sugar producer, China is also the world’s top buyer of sugar. Sweetness is truly the taste that people all over China—and the rest of the globe—love the most.
Our high-quality pure sugars enhance the taste, texture and appearance of food and beverage products in all the world’s cuisines. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.