A giant grass resembling bamboo, sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea before beginning its transformative march around the globe around 10,000 years ago. Unlike the hollow bamboo though, sugar cane stems are almost 90% filled with a sappy pulp with a pleasantly sweet flavour. Processed, it becomes a vital source of the world’s sugar trade, but it can also be eaten raw, a favourite for those looking for a refreshing drink or sweet treat to chew on. But it doesn’t just taste good, sugar cane (in moderation…) can be good for you too.
During the hot season, Cambodians adore pressed sugar cane juice which can be whipped up in a few minutes at just 1000 riel for each reviving glass. This doesn’t just help us to deal with the heat, but also contains iron, calcium, vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C, as well as the saccharose sought after by athletes and people suffering from kidney and stomach problems. Sugar cane is also renowned for being rich in oligo-elements and minerals including phosphorus, magnesium, fluorine (anti-cavity), iron, copper, zinc and manganese, all essential for healthy growth and development.
A Precious Commodity
While the original plant cultivated in New Guinea is now extinct, its descendants have gone on to become the most cultivated plant in the world. In 2013, almost 1,900 million tonnes of raw sugar cane were produced for processing, more than corn and rice combined. The first written records of its existence, and the delicious sugars it produced, can be traced back to India where, for instance, the Mahābhāshya of Patanjali mentions sugar repeatedly in particular meals, for instance rice pudding with milk and sugar and fermented drinks flavoured with ginger and sugar. Later on, in 327 BCE, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Nearchus, describes a reed in India which brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made though the plant bears no fruit. Sugar, in the crystalline form we recognise today, did not really make an appearance in Europe until around 800 CE. The westward Arab expansion brought conquest of North Africa and occupation of major parts of Europe to which the Arabs brought sugar cane and introduced a taste for this sweet new flavour.
At the time, sugar cane was also used for its medical properties. The Latin name for the mostly widely cultivated sugarcane today is saccharum officinarum, ‘sugar of the apothecaries’. The sugar drawn from the plant was a rare and precious commodity, which inspired the Arabs to create syrups and sweet pastries. But it was also an essential ingredient in medical preparations. Towards the 12th century, sugar cane was more valuable than gold and was the source of frequent conflict between European powers. In Cambodia too, sugar cane has also been at the root of several land conflicts. The sugar extracted here is generally transformed by foreign companies for rapid exportation to neighbouring countries.
However, it still remains a product widely available among street vendors who freshly press the sweet, sticky juice out of long stems right in front of their thirsty client. Drinking raw juice this way, with no additional refinement or treatment, means it can be enjoyed with all the natural advantages that are lost in processed sugars.
Original text by Cambodge Mag. Read the original article here.