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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Sugarcane Juice

I'll start off on a weird note. Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? Despite its complicated sounding name, its a simple thing, really. It a phenomenon when you hear, see, or find something unusual, and then suddenly you hear it repeated within a very short period of time. For example, I was reading this book, and one of the key aspects of it was a tuna melt (yeah, I know, I know!! Humour me, OK). The next day I went with Kay to the Blue Plate Diner here in Edmonton, and, lo! a tuna melt was staring at me from the menu. 

At this point, you're probably wondering where on earth this waffle of mine is going, right? Well, its going somewhere... I promise. And it all started with a piece of sugarcane grass. Kathryn and I were shopping at Fruiticana, a local Indian grocery store for our Cook Indian Vegetarian class, and what should be staring at me, but piles of sugarcanes, all beautiful in their green and gold finery! I almost did a little dance right there with excitement (Kathryn and Aditi must have thought I was completely nuts!) as I convinced Kathryn that we should buy one straightaway. The plan was to use them in our South East Asian class, but that never really came about, and the sugarcane was duly stolen appropriated by the chief leftover scrounger, aka, me.

So I get home with this cane, and my Kay just looks at me and goes, is that sugarcane?? Really? And I go, well, yeah. What's wrong? And he tells me that on the very same day, one of the students in his office, a lovely young Zimbabwean chap called Chaka was bemoaning the fact that he couldn't find sugarcane anywhere in Edmonton... talk about Baader-Meinhof phenomenon overload or what!! So Kay happily took a piece of the sugarcane to Chaka, who was impressed and pleased and excited too, and my good deed for the day was done :) And to make things even weirder, just the day before, Michael, another one of Kay's students had just told him about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. As Jughead would say, 'weird, weird'.

Sugarcane Juice

At this point, you're probably wondering why on earth I would make such a fuss about a simple, exotic ingredient. Well, if you grew up in the South of India you would know. Sugarcane juice is probably one of the biggest thirst quenchers on Indian streets, coming second only to ahem Pepsi green coconut water. Sugarcane shacks are ubiquitous all over Mangalore and the coast. As sugarcane is one of the major cash crops of the area, it can be found in abundance and any canes that don't make it to the sugar factories find themselves destined for the heavy rollers of the sugarcane juice presser and into the parched throats of weary travellers and thirsty students and fussy children. 

Sugarcane juice is usually pressed manually between two heavy rollers. The sugarcane shack guy will stick two to three canes in between the rollers, the milky, thick juice gushes down into a steel can, waiting to receive it. After the third or fourth pressing the juice-wallah would then fold the canes over, and tuck a small piece of ginger and a half of a lime into it, the flavours melding gorgeously with the juice. The juice would then be ladled into ice filled glasses and quickly passed on to the customers. 

And if you paid the juice-wallah a couple more rupees, he might even wash the glasses and equipment to make it all a smidgeon more hygienic... well, not really! Sugarcane juice is not for the fainthearted traveller, though, do go on and try some, nevertheless. Its the staple of the locals and sugarcane shacks are usually found in bustling street corners. They are certainly part of the magic of India, with their dusty, probably rusty too, rollers, steel canisters and icy cold, slightly spicy, tangy sweetness.

For me, sugarcane juice is that taste of childhood. Every time we went out shopping, or just meandering around town, we had to make a quick pit stop at the sugarcane shack, just to make sure we weren't dehydrated and grumpy. Even today, just the thought of that cold glass makes me want to go straight back to India and grab some of that juicy loveliness. I can't describe the taste accurately enough, all I can say is that its one of those flavours that you really need to experience. For me, its India that I grew up in, in a juice glass.

Sugarcane Juice

I am going to be very honest here. This recipe is a lot of work for a little reward. And the taste is nowhere close to the rich, thick, milky juiciness that comes from a freshly pressed sugarcane. Sugarcane juice just doesn't keep. The cloudy richness disappears a few minutes after the juice has been pressed, and it turns clear, almost like sugar water, but with a depth of flavour from the ginger and lime. In India, you can now find sanitised version of sugarcane juice, made in a pressé like machine especially in the malls. To me, that's cheating, and you will never get the true taste of this delicious juice, unless you have it on a street corner in a dirty glass with dodgy ice. No way around that, fraid!

And my blender version is, like I said, not the real thing. But, to be honest, when you live so far away from the place you grew up in, you basically take what you get. My friend May put it pretty succinctly on Facebook 'If it was sugarcane, all of us here would be giddy with excitement..', I agree, May, I agree... giddy is the word and I certainly was. 

I learned a few lessons though. Sugarcane juice is really hard to blend up straight in a blender. You will need to add water, which dilutes the juice. Its still really delicious and so good chilled over ice, but to experience the real thing you may want to book your flights to India, instead :) So there are some things in the world that are best tasted where they are. Recreating them is awesome, but the true reward is the bliss one gets when memories are revived and remembered.


Recipe (or how to make your life difficult) 
(Should I even bother with a printable recipe...!) 
Makes about 4 small glasses of juice 

1 cane of sugarcane (a couple feet tall or two pieces) 
1 inch piece of ginger, chopped
Juice of half a lime or lemon
Cold water, as required

Method: 

Line a fine sieve with a couple sheets of cheesecloth. I like to use a jelly bag (available at canning or craft stores), as it doesn't split while squeezing. 

Prep the sugarcane. Using a rolling pin, and a chef's knife, cut into the sugarcane into pieces, just beyond the seams. Strip the tough skins off the pieces, then cut into small batons. This will be easier once the skin is off (check out the last picture in this post)

Place the chopped sugarcane pieces in a powerful blender and add the chopped ginger and lime juice. Cover with cold water, so that the water comes up to three quarters of the sugarcane pieces. Blend, topping up with a little more water if the sugarcane is hard to blend. 

Scoop out the sugarcane, and place immediately in the cheesecloth over the sieve or jelly bag. Squeeze out as much juice as you can, adding a dash more water, in order to extract maximum flavour. Discard the fibrous solids.

Serve over ice. 

Prepping sugarcane

10 comments :

  1. Thank you so much for this post; my partner and I moved to Fort Kochi last month (we're here until June or July), and we see the sugarcane juice guys down by the beach all the time. We haven't tried it yet - may have to remedy this situation in the next few days!

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  2. Thank you for the sugar cane! It was fantastic, my Burundese aunty loved it too. In Zimbabwe we say if you want to see how pretty a girl is, give her sugarcane (nzimbe)..this is because we peel the tough skin with our teeth and this does not always bring out the best facial expressions! -Chaka

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  3. I love the sound of this - although I'm slightly nervous of the fuss involved in making it. When I lived near Brixton market I was introduced to the joys of chewing sugarcane but I haven't had any for many years. I've got a serious craving now.

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  4. Oh yum! I'm going to go find some sugarcane now. Bring back memories of monthi fest and Aloysius days :) xx

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  5. Wahhh... Refreshing juice.. Love the presentation too !

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  6. I adore sugarcane juice! Can't find it in London, though. #sadface

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  7. Interesting drink indeed. I have developed scientific technique to improve shelf life of packed sugarcane juice by more than 4 months with no change in taste, flavor,texture and other quality traits.
    I am Dr K.P.Sharma , Sugarcane Scientist ,India
    Interested may contact me at kulsalone@yahoo.co.in or M 09897382233 / 09219617295

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  8. How do you keep the sugarcane juice not tasting sour after a day you out ut inside the freezer?

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  9. Excellent post..It's interesting to know about the sugarcane drink..Thanks for sharing

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