An integral part of my childhood involved sugar cane. In Nigeria, it was the highlight of summer, and when we’d visit India, it was equally the rule of law for us to eat it wherever it was offered. On roadside stands, we’d make it a point to stop on the motorcycle or scooters we were being driven on, to get fresh cut sugar cane, and freshly squeezed ras – sugar cane juice. But my favourite place to have it was near our family farm, where we grew pragmatic crops like rice, wheat, and corn. A short walk from the farm, along a makeshift dirt patch, was a small field of sugar cane owned by a neighbor. Little kids, as well as those who lived in the area would break down a huge stalk and start tearing it to shreds with their teeth, sucking in the juice, and spitting the flavorless carcass onto the ground, while yapping it up.
A few days ago, after we went for dinner at Saravanaa Bhavan in Edison, New Jersey for dosa and coffee, we stopped by an Indian grocery store, where me and Kavya immediately eyed a massive stalk of sugarcane for very different reasons. She saw it as a weapon, whereas I thought it would be a good way to relive my fond childhood memories. What I had glossed over in my nostalgic memory is that chewing sugarcane, even when done properly, is a really inelegant, violent, and messy affair, amplified when you attempt to do it indoors.
Sona is not particularly elegant when it comes to eating in general and as much as I’m sure she’ll try to deny it, I have photographic evidence of her with all sorts of sabji on her clothes. We can’t all be as tidy as me. Kavya is even more of a messy eater than her mum (definitely doesn’t get the messy gene from me . . . . okay, there was that one time in 1993 when I spilled pho on my trousers). Neither of them like to work for their food.
Sona tried sugar cane a couple of times in India when we were backpacking for our six month honeymoon, mainly so she would have something to do as I sat there and ripped through the sugar cane like an animal eating raw flesh. The first place she ate it was in Amritsar, not far from the Golden Temple. We were walking through one of the maze-like alleyways, and came across two guys with massive knives and a cart. Sona thought to herself, Yes. This seems like the perfect time and place to try sugarcane. They were really efficient, very funny, and chopped up the sugarcane all prim and proper, so they were in bite sized piece, the thick outer layer removed.
But the core facts remain: you do not eat sugarcane. You sink your teeth into it and let the sweet, sugary juices burst into your mouth, then you suck the life out of every strand like a vampire, and spit out the flavorless part. Despite Sona’s excellent dental hygiene, she just couldn’t get into the whole, ripping of the bamboo like skin, sucking out the juice, spitting on the ground aspect of it.
When I brought it home and set it down on the cutting board, I attempted to cut it up into little pieces, and quickly found out I lacked both the technical skill and willpower for that to happen. So rather than risk losing fingers and probably an entire hand, I decided to kick it old school and ate the entire stalk by stripping the thick skin, before sinking my teeth in. And it was delicious, albeit not very civilized.
I leave you with an epic joke my cousin once told me, just after we tore through two entire stalks of sugar cane. The joke is in Punjabi and Hindi, so like much of what happens in life, it’s probably ruined, but here it is anyway:
A Punjabi girl is studying in Delhi and brings home two friends from college. They go to a mela in Punjab, where they have all sorts of food. The Delhites repeatedly say they want Sams, and nobody understands what she’s talking about, until they finally say, “Oh Fo, Samosas.”
They continue making their way through the mela and the Delhites remain unimpressed and hoighty-toighty. Then a friend of the Punjabi girl says to the Delhites, “I bet you’ve never tried G.D.R. Punjab is famous for it.” The girls’ eyes light up and they excitedly say, “What is G.D.R.?”
They eagerly follow the friend and walk to a sugarcane seller. He smashes up the stalks in the metal grinder attached to his cart, pours the juice into three large glasses and tops it with some masala that he rigorously mixes, causing a foam to develop on top.
The girls drink it down and find it delicious. “That,” the friend and the Punjabi girl say when they’re finished, “is G.D.R. Ganne Da Ras.” Yes, that’s the punchline. It helps if you’re drunk on G.D.R. to fully appreciate it. Or maybe not. What? Do YOU know any good sugarcane jokes?
How do you eat your sugar cane? Have any excellent sugar cane jokes?