A House of Honey: White Sugar, Brown Sugar, and the Taste for Modernity in Colonial and Postcolonial Indonesia
In the 1980s, in coffeeshops in Jakarta, unless you offered precise requests to the contrary, your drink would arrive dosed with a very heavy load of sweetener. That sweetener, moreover, would almost invariably have been in the form of white, crystalline, factory-made sugar. The extensive use of sweetener in the diet of the mass of the Indonesian population, and, most certainly, the marked preference for white, factory-made sugar, were twentieth century developments. They took place, moreover, in a country which, although it had once been host to one of the world’s greatest colonial “white” sugar industries, had been far more familiar historically to indigenously produced brown sugar than with the white form of the commodity. Indeed, until quite late in Indonesia’s colonial past, its massive output of white sugar had been almost entirely produced for export. The domestic market had been catered for-very largely-by “native” Indonesian producers using “traditional” methods quite alien to the large Dutch-owned factories in which
Indonesia’s white sugar was produced. White sugar only began to dominate the Indonesian market for sweetener in the second half of the twentieth century. In the existing account, this Indonesian taste for sweetener and the shift in consumer preferences from brown to white, appear as merely incidental concerns.2 Yet, from the standpoint of the history of one of the world’s iconic foodstuffs-and of food and foodways in general-these matters are anything but marginal, all the more so because they evoke themes that are of global as well as local significance. Based on unpublished archival sources as well as on the existing published literature on Java sugar, and working from a historian’s perspective, the discussion that follows attempts an initial outline, therefore, of a hitherto somewhat neglected but important topic.