I was at MTR on St Marks Road for breakfast earlier today. While I was walking out of the outlet, the glass counter filled with sweets of all shapes, sizes and colors caught my eye.
Remember those CBSE - NCERT textbooks that spoke of kids going to the sweetmeat shop? Moral Science textbooks, particularly. There was always a Mohan or some such fellow with a nondescript name trying to steal from Ram Kaka’s sweetmeat shop or if his moral compass was aligned right, salivating in from of the sweetmeat shop, then saving up to indulge. When I was in school, I associated the rosgulla alone with the word ‘sweetmeat’ - it was sweet and the spongy texture made it meaty.
Nostalgia, much giggling as I repeated “sweetmeats” over and over again to K and some ruminations on Twitter followed.
Aside: This is what @Subfusced had to say when I tweeted the picture from the MTR store. (I’m yet to look up how true this is and figure out how slimy intestines are converted into shiny lighter than paper silvery foil.)
As expected, someone from Tamil Nadu (in this case, it was a D. Vrinda from Coimbatore) had already written to The Hindu asking about the word’s origin:
Why do some people refer to sweets as ‘sweetmeat’?
The word ‘sweetmeat’ is considered to be old fashioned; some dictionaries label it as being ‘archaic’. In the past, any sweet delicacy — candy, a piece of fruit coated with sugar, etc. — was called sweetmeat. The word ‘meat’ in ‘sweetmeat’ has nothing to do with animal flesh. In Old English, the word ‘mete’, from which we get the modern ‘meat’, meant ‘food’. All items of food, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, were called ‘meat’. The original meaning of ‘sweetmeat’ was ‘sweet food’.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first print reference to sweetmeats to the 16th century
1. collect. pl. (and †sing.) †Sweet food, as sugared cakes or pastry, confectionery (obs.); preserved or candied fruits, sugared nuts, etc.; also, globules, lozenges, ‘drops,’ or ‘sticks’ made of sugar with fruit or other flavouring or filling;
sing. one of these.
The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani published in 1999 has this to say:
The ancient Egyptians preserved nuts and fruits with honey, and by the Middle Ages physicians had learned how to mask the bad taste of their medicines with sweetness, a practice still widespread. Boiled “sugar plums were known in the seventeenth-century England and soon were to appear in the American colonies where maple-syrup candy was popular in the North and benne-seed [sesame seed] confections were just as tempting in the South.
In New Amersterdam one could enjoy "marchpane,” or “marzipan,” which is very old decorative candy made from almonds ground into a sweet paste. While the British called such confections, “sweetmeats,” Americans came to call “candy,” from the Arabic qandi, “made of sugar,” although one finds “candy” in English as early as the fifteenth century.
Explains NCERT’s sweetmeats hangover. The textbooks were probably written in the British era and never reviewed!