Friday, 1 May 2015

The Amazing Race 26, Episode 9

Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Trujillo (Peru) - Otuzco (Peru)

One of the benefits of travelling to many different places is gaining enough perspective to tell which activities, ways of doing things, foods, etc. are really characteristic of the specific place where you first encounter them, and which are actually common around the world even if you never see them in your home country.

A case in point this week on The Amazing Race: fresh squeezed sugar cane juice.

The Amazing Race has occasionally returned to a place that it visited in an earlier season, for a “reprise” of a challenge that was especially popular with viewers. Real travellers do the same thing, returning to places we have visited before to try to recreate peak experiences. The attempt is rarely entirely successful, although it can be interesting to learn about both how places have changed and how we as observers have changed since our previous visits.

In this episode, the racers had to perform a very similar task to one that was assigned to the cast of The Amazing Race 17 five years ago: cutting and crushing raw sugar cane and drinking a cup of the cane juice. But that was in Bangladesh, and this time was in Peru, almost exactly on the opposite side of the globe. The antipode of Trujillo is actually closer to Kuala Lumpur than to Dhaka, but on a global scale that’s about as far apart as major cities get. The antipode of anywhere in the lower 48 mainland US states, by contrast, is somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I first tasted fresh cane juice in Pakistan, but it’s common, with minor local variations in additives (lime, salt, ginger, etc.) , in many countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania. So why is it rare to the point of being almost unknown in the USA (except in Hawaii), even in places where sugar cane is grown?

Sugar cane is uneconomical to ship long distances. Most of the weight and bulk is the fiber, not the juice. That’s why sugar cane is invariably pressed (“milled”) and often further processed close to where it is grown, regardless of whether will be used for refined sugar, rum or other cane-based alcoholic drinks, or ethanol fuel.

Raw sugar cane juice goes bad if it isn’t drunk, refined, or fermented almost immediately. Rum is fermented from molasses, which is why it was possible to ship refined molasses from the Caribbean to centralized and sometimes faraway distilleries in Boston and elsewhere. Cachaça, which The Amazing Race encountered in Brazil several seasons ago, is fermented from raw cane juice, of necessity in smaller “artisanal” production facilities close to the cane fields.

Small quantities of fresh sugar cane show up from time to time in farmers’ markets and some stores in San Francisco, but the one juice bar in our neighborhood that used to have a cane press wasn’t able to find a sufficient and reliable supply of fresh local cane.

A cane press is a sizable, specialized investment. Typically, a cane juice vendor, having invested in a press and secured a constant supply of cane, sells nothing else. You can’t readily extract the juice from sugar cane using a food processor or a standard juicer of the sort that you would use for most fruits or vegetables. The cane fibers are strong and stiff, and have to be squeezed hard between heavy, firmly mounted metal rollers. Extracting as much juice as possible requires as many as half a dozen passes through the press, with the crushed stalks being folded over on each other again after each pass. Power is supplied either by a gasoline or electric motor or by a person pulling heavy metal crank arms two or three feet long.

I doubt that anyone is manufacturing cane presses in the USA, so if you wanted one you’d have to source and import one from abroad. You might run into problems with workplace safety regulations, since it’s necessary to shove the stalks firmly into the moving rollers, which could easily grab and pull in your fingers. I’m not sure it would be possible to fit effective safety guards on a hand fed cane press, and a mechanical feeder, even if such exists, would add another whole level level of complexity and expense.

Finally, both cutting sugar cane to harvest it — as the racers had to do in this episode — and pressing it for juice, one or two stalks at a time, are slow and unavoidably labor-intensive, even with a motorized cane press. That’s why commercial sugar cane cultivation is concentrated in the lowest wage countries, and uneconomical in high wage countries even where growing conditions for cane are good.

If you haven’t tried fresh sugar cane juice, you don’t know what you are missing. It’s not too sweet (no sweeter than many other processed and packaged drinks) and with a far more complex flavor than you would expect from “sugar water”. It’s cloudy, somewhat viscous, and has a fresh green taste that reminds you that sugar cane is a sort of grass. The most deeply flavored processed derivatives of sugar cane, blackstrap molasses and dark punch rum, can’t come close to the subtlety of flavors in a glass of fresh-squeezed cane juice — regardless of whether it makes you think of Peru, Bangladesh, or wherever else in your travels you first encountered it.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 1 May 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I had fresh-squeezed cane juice on a farm outside Puerto Iguazú, and it was exquisite. It's probably fortunate I can't get it here, or I'd become addicted.

Posted by: Wayne Bernhardson, 6 May 2015, 20:04 ( 8:04 PM)
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