By Mary Reisel
What are “sweets”? In gastronomy, they are not part of the regular list of ingredients included under the global group called “food”. They constitute a separate category that escapes traditional boundaries of food since it is the only edible defined only by its flavor: sweet.
Everyone knows what sweets are, and yet, it does not make it easier to understand their gastronomical position on our plate, and the high attachment that many people developed towards sweets regardless of culture, age, gender, and any other criteria. They are not part of the meal, they are not an aperitif one can eat before a meal, and they are not even the after-meal dessert since many desserts are not necessarily sweet. And yet, unlike other flavors, they are by far the most popular one. After all, nobody heard of a group called “the salties” or “the bitters”.
Desserts earned their traditional definition based on the clear place they have in the order of the meal: the last course. The word dessert appeared in the 16th century in French, desservier , and it means to clear everything from the table, a word that implied the opposite of to serve, servir. Originally, in older times the dessert was usually a fruit, but as the food scholar, Tebben, discovered, the visual appearance of the dessert quickly became its most important feature, and desserts were added to the list of courses as an independent dish. Desserts started appearing first in festive meals of the high society, which were usually a long process of eating, drinking, and having a good time. By the end of the merry meal, the participants were tired from over-eating and indulging in wine, therefore serving a small portion of something sweet for the last course became the sign the courses were over and it was time for the participants to get back to their senses, slowly relax from eating and recover their energies. However, the desire for the taste of sweet, which is considered to be a main nutritional component necessary for healthy brain activity, has a much longer history dated to pre-historic times.
The story of humanity’s infatuation with sweet flavor is as long as its history, and there is testimony to the habit of eating honey already in prehistoric times. It is surprising how early in time people learned to use honey and to eat it in different ways, a practice that supports the idea that sweet is probably necessary for many functions of the body. It was also used as a cure and a source of fast energy and strength. As food was more varied with the increase of cooking methods, honey was added to fruits, nuts, and even vegetables, and areas that were growing wheat and barley used honey with wheat and later added it to breads. By the 10th-11th centuries, preparing sweets based on honey became a popular practice, and around the same time, the first sugarcanes were brought to Europe from India. The growth and the usage of sugarcanes for drinks and food were a known practice in ancient India and in the Islamic world of the middle ages, but in Europe it was considered an expensive spice that was difficult to grow in quantities and in the European climate of the middle ages. In the 17th century, chocolate was introduced in Europe and with the development of new technologies of production, there was a continuous increase of sweets based on sugar and new types of desserts.
Special desserts developed fast during the 18th century, and created more and more sophisticated servings with a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Sometimes they even replaced some of the main dishes and other traditional dishes of the meal. They were consumed by the upper classes and nobility due to high expenses of sugar and honey that most people could not afford. Think of the imaginary festive days presented in movies about the French royalty of the 18th century, and of the famous statement attributed to Marie Antoinette: “let them eat cakes” (which apparently she never said, but the story represents well the value and social status of sweets and sweet products). However, it was only in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, that major changes could take place thanks to dramatic changes in social structure, entertainment, and food consumption, and those led to the final separation of sweets from desserts and from other meal courses. The industrial revolution was the period that changed lifestyle and social classes and one of the fastest growing industries of the 19th century was the cheap food. New ships imported large amounts of sugar and cocoa to Europe, and provided cheap resources that allowed the growing middle class to copy eating habits that previously belonged only to the upper classes. Sweets developed quickly into a major industry, their prices were constantly lower, and their size smaller.
To a certain extent, the cheap and fast-consumed sweets were to desserts what chicken nuggets were to a home-made stuffed chicken, i.e. find the chicken if you can, and pretend colored sugar is a real dessert. Loaded with sugar, small in size, and easily consumed anytime, the sweet snacks became popular in different shapes and colors, and the industry was increasingly growing and expanding thanks to new professions like advertisement and marketing. One major development that is worth noting is the discovery of the edible gum and the invention of the bubble gum. The gum that appeared in the middle of the 19th century was a major turning point since it was sold in the then new vending machines and corner shops, and it became a symbol of the new shopping experience. As part of shopping, it was separated from the food industry and from any connotation of eating and until today it is “instead of” eating, a kind of an in-between activity connecting chewing and buying, the new modern “as-if” we buy and “as-if” we eat. It opened a door to new forms of consumption, of fast-food, and of advertisement with its sugar-base being consumed very fast and the need to buy more and more. This was the beginning of playing with taste, desires, and food addiction that leads to dependency.
Sweets then are not an innocent small bite of taste but a complicated history of a resource that blends industrial development, food psychology, sugar dependency, and the illusion of satisfied desire in forms of cheap accessibility. But they do not form a nutritional meal. They are “as-ifs”.
And yet, these “as-if sweets” became a key connector, communicator, substitute, and exchange currency for everything people do, and even to what people are. When checking the vocabulary dictionary, it is amazing to discover there are over 400 adjectives associated, added, and connected to sweets, from rich and expensive and up to spicy and sexy. All human desires and emotions are reflected in the taste of sweet and are by now marketed and sold through complicated manipulation of taste formation, visuals, and neuroscience. Our brains need sugar to function well, and it can easily explain why the consumption of sugar has become the major industry it has become, and also led to a vast psychological research in the field of addiction. This is what science and psychologists keep telling us.
And yet, it doesn’t explain why in non-western cultures, like Japan, the sweets ended up taking a very different course, far from the western problem they have become by now.
Taste perception and Zen Buddhism
There is one crucial difference in the value of sweets between Japan and the west: sweets are part of food!
The Japanese sweets, wagashi, are made for hundreds of years of the same ingredients that are part of the daily food consumption: rice and beans. The Japanese keep preserving the special tradition of healthy sweets, as well as the history of sweets as part of the tea ceremony and part of religion. Thus, the place of sweet food, fruits included, has a different social status in Japanese culture and food habits.
Since the sense of taste develops differently in each culture, Japan was very careful to keep the separation between its original sweets and the western ones. There are different words and characters intended to maintain this separation, and every good Japanese restaurant or hotel will serve them separately. In addition, western sweets are also served in smaller portions and with much lower amounts of sugar in order to keep their taste closer to the taste of Japanese sweets that contain low amounts of sugar and usually no fat. Many types of western sweets have become a nice gift for the holidays and a special present, chocolate included.
The wagashi has always been an important aesthetic component of the meal that has to be designed carefully according to the season and the colors of nature. It is a sweet given originally to the gods and therefore has to meet Shinto practices and the values of Zen Buddhism at the same time. Sweets made of sugar are very small, and there is a special place in the kimono to keep them and eat them later slowly with green tea.
To better understand the importance of appearance, performance, and consumption in Japanese culture, please refer to my article on Instagram in Japan which focuses on the special meaning of aesthetic visuals in Japanese culture:
Join us next week when we will focus on marketing case studies in Japan based on the values of taste, sweets, and the place of desserts. Hopefully it will provide a sweet taste for January to sweeten the Corona winter.
© Mary Reisel, 2023, Tokyo, All Rights Reserved
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