How Śarkarā Crystallised Into Sugar: Food Words That Travelled
Image Credit: ‘Sugar’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘śarkarā’, meaning ‘grit’ or ‘sand’.

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IT is only fitting that the country with the largest number of people with Type 2 diabetes is the origin of the words sugar, jaggery and candy. ‘Sugar’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘śarkarā’, meaning ‘grit’ or ‘sand’. How did this grainy term get into English? Well, it was quite the ride. 'Śarkarā' travelled to Persia where it became 'shakar,' moved to Arabic as 'sukkar', then journeyed across the Mediterranean into Latin as 'Saccharum'. From there, it sweet-talked its way into old French as 'sucre' before finally Anglicising into 'sugar.' And while the word applied for a Schengen visa and toured around Europe, the tall grass that was the source of sugar travelled around the world, playing a central role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and eventually the industrial revolution (a lot of early innovation in industrial manufacturing happened in sugar factories). 

Jaggery, the unrefined non-centrifugal sugar, had a more direct path. Surprisingly, it originated in the same Sanskrit word 'śarkarā', but made it into Portuguese as 'jagara' via Malayalam and then into English as 'jaggery'. So, jaggery and sugar are linguistic siblings, a fact that a lot of Indians could learn from given that they still wrongly believe jaggery is a healthy sweetener compared to its factory-refined bleached white cousin. 

'Candy' though, took a different path. It's believed to be derived from 'khaṇḍa' — a Sanskrit word for 'piece' or 'fragment' — related to the process of making candy where sugar is broken into pieces. From 'khaṇḍa' we get 'khand', which is the word for sugar in several Indian languages. This was picked up by the French as 'candi' and later morphed into 'candy' in English.

Sanskrit wasn't the only place where new food words were being cooked up. Much to the chagrin of purveyors of a particular brand of homogenous Indian identity rooted in Sanskrit, Dravidian languages (like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada) have their own etymological cloud kitchens if you will. 

The word 'orange' is believed to have originated from the Tamil term nāram or 'nārangam', which roughly translates to 'fragrant'. The Sanskrit equivalent nāraṅga likely originated from this Tamil term. The word then travelled westwards along the Silk Road, picked up by the Persians as 'nārang'. The Arabs made it 'nāranj', and as the Moors brought the fruit to Spain, it transformed into 'naranja'. The Italians, generally known for their healthy appetite, ate the starting letter to make it "arancia" and when the word entered the French language, it became 'orenge' before crossing the English Channel and turning into "orange".

Before we feel too much pride in being the root of so many delicious words, it's important to recognise that words travel along trade routes, and those tend to be two-way traffic. The Persian "birian" (meaning "fried before cooking") became biryani and brinji (a South Indian rice dish) and the Middle-Eastern sambusaq became the samosa, but it underwent both a linguistic and culinary transformation here. We took a Middle Eastern snack of fried wheat flour stuffed with minced meat and replaced the meat with another foreign visitor — the potato that arrived with the Portuguese. So the samosa is India's first contribution to the genre of food we pioneered —  "multicuisine". 

Chai came from "cha" in Mandarin in a rather straightforward way while the tea plant itself was at the centre of an 18th-century political OTT series involving opium from Bihar being smuggled into China in exchange for currency that was used by the Brits to buy tea before they eventually started growing tea in Assam. 

Jalebi came from the Arabic "zalabiya" and pulao came from the Persian "pilaf" although the basic idea of cooking rice and meat (or vegetables) goes back to "Mamsa-udana" in Sanskrit. 

And if you are suddenly feeling overwhelmed by these foreign invasions, take comfort in the remarkable story of "namak". Hindi for salt, but originally from the Persian "namak" — although there is a plot twist. The Persian word itself traces back to the ancient Sanskrit root "nam", meaning "to bow or pay homage", reflecting the high value attributed to salt in those times. 

It's not all about trade routes and invasions either. The term 'chapati' is derived from 'chapat', which in Hindi means 'slap' or 'flap'. The action of slapping the dough between one's hands to flatten it into a round disc is central to the process of making chapatis, giving the bread its name. So essentially, every time you're enjoying a chapati, you're consuming a 'slap'.

It’s not just a word, it's a sound, a motion, and a symbol of the traditional art of bread making. It also underscores the tactile relationship between food and its preparation, where the method of creation influences the name of the dish itself.

But let's not take etymologies too seriously: In a place like India where oral histories trump written records, languages change regularly, and political and cultural biases colour all history, let alone etymology. So, for all the śarkarā stories from this part of the world, take it with a pinch of "namak".

Krish Ashok is author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking. Follow more of his work on Twitter and Instagram.