The other day, after many years, I had a glass of sugarcane juice – ganne ka ras, in Hindi. There is something magical about sugarcane juice, a sense of something wonderful being produced from something very prosaic. The juice is extracted from the fibres of wood, leaving behind tasteless wads of pulp. Normal sugar-juices mostly make you thirsty again after drinking it, but sugarcane juice is quite different — it’s totally sweet but the after-taste dryness isn’t there, so you can enjoy drinking even on a very hot summer day.
While walking on an Allahabad street a few months ago, my son Babai and I saw a fresh sugarcane juice vendor crushing out juice from his hand-pushed cart. Who would say no to a glass of sugarcane juice in a hot, sultry summer afternoon?
It’s a cool refresher, an ideal recharger energy drink. We both love ganne ka ras and we drink it whenever we get a chance, ignoring the hygiene concern. In our childhood days, hygiene was never an issue. We used to drink water from tap and eat anything, anywhere. We, now, ensure that the sugarcane, the container and glasses are cleaned in our presence.
Sugarcane juice is sold all over India from hand carts that are fitted with crusher. The juice is extracted from pressed sugarcane. Rollers are used to physically press the stalks to release the juice. This process helps retain more nutrients in the final juice compared with using high-speed juicing machines that cut the cane with blades. Santosh Desai has nicely described:
The act of watching sugarcane juice being produced is an oddly satisfying one. Rivers erupt from wood as the cane goes into the jaws of the crusher, as the wheel is moved laboriously at first, and then with increasing speed. The reluctance of the early stage gives way to a gush of magnanimity, only for the bounty to recede towards the end, as juice is wheedled out of increasingly lifeless looking cane. The final act of extraction involves twisting the reluctant remnants of the cane till some final sap is extorted. Even in the way juice is produced from the crop involves labour; juice here is locked up in the hardness of the cane and great force is needed to separate the sugar from the cane. In the world of sugarcane, nothing is easy, but with effort the rewards are very sweet indeed.
Sugarcane is a tall grass native to the region of the India and Southeast Asia. New Guinea is the home of the cultivated form of sugarcane. In ancient times, people migrating from the Indochina area to New Guinea encountered different types of wild sugarcane. High-fiber forms were used for construction; softer and juicier forms were propagated in gardens for chewing. From c. 8000 BCE onwards, people migrated from New Guinea to several Pacific Islands, taking a cultivated form of sugarcane with them. Around 6000 BCE, it was carried to the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
Originally, people chewed sugarcane raw to extract its sweetness. Indians discovered how to crystallize sugar c. 2500 years ago. India was home of the first organised sugar production. Indus Valley civilisation has evidence to show that they knew sugarcane and sugar extraction. Ancient Hindu texts, such as Arthashastra, which probably dates back from 100-200 CE, give explicit instruction on how to grow sugarcane.
Ikshvaku was the founder of the Suryavamsha (the Solar dynasty). He was the grandson of Vivasvan or Surya and son of Vaivasvata Manu. His name is derived from Sanskrit ikshu, meaning sugarcane. Ikshvaku was mentioned in Rig Veda (1500-1200 BCE). Lord Rama belonged to the Ikshavaku dynasty. According to the Buddhist texts, Prince Siddhartha belonged to this dynasty.
As per ancient Jain texts, Rishabhanatha (son of King Nabhi), the founder of Jainism is said to have founded the Ikshvaku dynasty. The name for the Ikshvaku dynasty comes from the word ikhsu (sugarcane), another name of Rishabhanatha, because he taught people how to extract ikshu-rasa (sugarcane-juice). Akshaya Tritiya is celebrated by Jains to commemorate Lord Adinath‘s (a.k.a. Rishabhanatha, first of the twenty-four Tirthankaras) ending of one-year fast by consuming sugarcane juice poured into his cupped hands.
In 510 BCE, the Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India where he found “the reed which gives honey without bees”. Alexander’s army tasted it in India in 326 BCE. Sugarcane became popular and spread to the rest of the world only after Indians developed the technique of turning sugarcane juice into granulated crystals thereby making it easy to store as well as transport.
Sugar spread with Buddhism in China and Lord Buddha was even referred to as the “King of Sugarcane.” During the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647 CE) in North India, Indian envoys in Tang China taught sugarcane cultivation methods after Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626–649 CE) made his interest in sugar known, and China soon established its first sugarcane cultivation in the seventh century. Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 CE, for obtaining technology for sugar-refining.
The secret of cane sugar, as with many other of man’s discoveries, was kept a closely guarded secret whilst the finished product was exported for a rich profit. It was the major expansion of the Arab people in the 7th century CE that led to a breaking of the secret. When they invaded Persia in 642 CE they found sugarcane being grown and learnt how sugar was made. As their expansion continued they established sugar production in other lands that they conquered including North Africa and Spain.
Sugar was only discovered by western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th Century CE. During the First Crusade (1096-99 CE) Christians discovered Arab cane farms. Soon they were growing and transferring sugarcane to new locations. The word ‘sugar’ and the words for sugar in other European languages came from the Sanskrit word ‘Sharkara’.
The famous Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist and author of De Materia Medica, Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE) wrote:
There is a kind of concentrated honey, called saccharon, found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix, like in consistence to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth, as salt is. It is good for the belly and the stomach being dissolved in water and so drank, helping the pained bladder and the reins.
The plant sugarcane is mentioned in the Atharva Veda. Ayurvedic authors Charaka and Susruta mentioned the sugarcane in many places.
Sugarcane has innumerable medicinal and curative properties and therefore is in usage since ages. Sugarcane juice is alkaline as it contains high concentration of magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and iron. Due to the high potassium content, Sugarcane juice is beneficial to maintain a healthy digestive system.
A glass of fresh sugarcane juice has on average 11 to 13 percent total sugar content. This is less sugar than a glass of orange juice or apple juice and far less sugar than most soft drinks. Sugarcane has glucose but also has a low glycemic index than instant sugar.
Fresh sugar cane juice also contains a range of ‘living’ antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fibre. The rest of the juice consists of water brimming with an abundance of vitamins and minerals. Sugarcane is known to keep your bilirubin levels in check, that is one of the reasons that this juice is used in Ayurveda to treat conditions like jaundice.
Its taste is enhanced with the tang of lime and a hit of ginger and topped up with the mysteriously delicious masala that only street vendors have access to. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice slows down the oxidation process. Citrus fruit contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which helps stabilize cane juice and slow down the oxidation process.
Sugarcane juice is one of the delicious and healthiest Indian drinks.