OF ALL THE FLAVOURINGS, sugar is almost certainly the most versatile. If you make desserts, it's also the one used in the biggest quantity, measured out by cups, rather than by pinch or spoonful. Most people think of sugar only for its sweetness, but it can add many flavours depending on how it's used. When a pinch is added to a sharp vinaigrette, the sugar's sweetness goes undetected, merely toning down the acidity of lemon juice or vinegar. In Chinese cooking, it's mixed with soy sauce, rice wine, salt, white pepper, oil and cornstarch to make a stan-dard marinade for meats. Here, it adds a subtle sweet note, which is balanced by the salty and savoury flavours of the other ingredients. Boil sugar with water and it's a simple sugar syrup for sweetening drinks. Cook it longer and it will caramelise into increasingly darker shades of brown, good for sauces, toffees, praline and creme caramel. Continue to cook it and the caramel will become a deep, brownish-black, with a sharp, acrid smell and bitter taste. In Vietnamese cuisine, this dark caramel is diluted with water and used in stews and claypot dishes. Bakers use diluted burned caramel to add colour to wholemeal breads; cooks sometimes brush it over grilling or roasting meat to give it a deeper, more appetising colour; and if you look at the list of ingredients on many soft drinks, you'll see they get their brown tint from caramel colouring. In desserts and confectionary, sugar not only adds sweetness, but also helps to preserve foods. It's one of the two main ingredients (along with fruit) in jellies and jams, and it helps baked products stay moist. Many people who eschew breads and sweets think sugar is the unhealthy element, but usually it's the other ingredients that are to blame. Sugar is bad for you only if you eat it in excess or if you're diabetic. Although brown sugar is perceived as being healthier than white, the amount of trace elements it contains is so minute to be practically insignificant in a balanced diet. Most of the sugar we use today comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. It's hard to believe that from these plants we can get such a variety of sugars: granulated white, caster, icing or confectioner's, brown and white crystal, brown and white cubes, raw and soft brown (which has molasses added) - and that's not even including any liquid-sugar by-products such as treacle, molasses and cane syrup. Other sources of sugar include the sugar palm and maple tree.