Believed to have originated in New Guinea in around 8000 BC, thence moving to India where it was domesticated before spreading to Iran in the 7th century. Though the ancient Greeks knew of sugar, it is uncertain whether it was the crystallized variety. There is no evidence of its use in cooking in Antiquity and Apicius’ manual does not contain any recipes requiring sugar. From Iran, sugar cane spread westward along the Mediterranean, reaching Egypt in the 8th century and al-Andalus by the 11th century.
Its origins are revealed in the terminology, with the Arabic word for sugar, sukkar (سكّر) being a borrowing from the Persian shakar (shakkar), itself a corruption of the Sanskrit sakkarā which referred to the juice from the sugar cane (قصب السكر, qasab al-sukkar) as well as hard sugar.
It was an expensive ingredient, which also enjoyed the imprimatur of physicians associated with the hospital of Jundishapur in Iran, several of whom would ply their trade at the Abbasid courts. However, the Andalusian physician Ibn Zuhr, for his part, wrote a treatise in which he expressed a preference of honey over sugar, claiming that doctors only started using sugar in all of their preparations in an attempt to pander to the rarefied interests of their patrons.
This explains why in the mediaeval Arab culinary treatises which reflect the cuisine of elite, sugar appears as the most-used sweetener in all kinds of dishes, though not infrequently in conjunction with honey, rose water and/or and rose-water syrup. The best variety of sugar was the white translucent ṭabarzad (طبرزد) which was made with milk. Other varieties included fānīd (فانيد) — made by adding sweet almond oil of finely-ground white flour to the decoction process) — and Sulaymānī (سليماني) sugar, which was produced from ‘red sugar” (sukkar aḥmar), which was broken into pieces and cooked to remove any impurities.
When making sugar, the boiled juice, called “maḥlab” (محلب, ‘milk’), was poured into cone- shaped earthenware moulds (أبلج/ublūj, pl. أباليج/abālīj), which are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, resulting in conical sugar loaves. Sugar was sold at market with the required quantity grated, or chopped off with a dedicated axe. Culinary recipes often refer to sugar being crushed and sifted.
Medicinally, sugar was said to be laxative, purgative and is useful against excess yellow bile in the stomach. It clears blockages. Old sugar expels phlegm from the stomach, while ṭabarzad prevents vomiting.
The Arabs introduced sugar to Europe and illustration below shows the making of sugar in the late 16th-century; sugar cane is cut and heated before being cooled and cut into shapes. Sugar cane remained the source of sugar until the development of the sugar beet in the 18th century.