All you need to know about the ubiquitous presence of sugarcane during Pongal celebrations

The white crystal sugar that we see now in abundance was once a treasure trove. In the 16th century, it was called the ‘white gold,’ a rare commodity used by the wealthy
Sugarcane and sugarcane juice
Sugarcane and sugarcane juice

Though there’s something to appreciate in every culinary category, our taste buds have a special fondness for sweet things. For many, munching on sweets after a meal is more or less like an obligation. 

Maybe it’s that sugar rush feeling that boosts the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals that make one want to experience the pleasure of all things sweet over and over again.

The white crystal sugar that we see now in abundance was once a treasure trove. In the 16th century, it was called ‘white gold,’ a rare commodity used by the wealthy. Therefore, back then, sugar cane was the most important crop in the world.

History of sugarcane

Until the Middle Ages, people used fruits or honey as sweeteners. Though sugarcane was found in the South Pacific even centuries before, it was farmed in New Guinea when its value was recognized. Soon, the goodness of sugarcane was spread by travelers. 

By the 13th century, the Middle East also began to grow the crop widely. Subsequently, the Venetians took it to Europe, primarily for royalty. Due to its rarity, in the early modern period, sugar was a symbol of status, more like an art form. There are records of detailed sugar sculptures, around 4-6 ft tall, adorning the tables of wealthy people.

Sugarcane and the production of sugar do not have a sweet history. In fact, this was one of the commodities that fueled slavery. According to experts, sugar was the most dominant economic incentive for European colonization of the Americas. In 1493, Christopher Colombus brought some cane stalks by way of the Spanish Canary Islands; it was after this that the idea of turning sugar into a commodity in bulk form came.

However, extracting sugar from sugarcane stalks involved arduous work. This fueled slavery from Brazil up to Louisiana as numerous sugar plantations were established. By the 19th century, Louisiana was producing about a quarter of the world’s cane sugar. Enslavement of people of African descent became rampant, a bitter chapter in human history. 

Over time, countless indigenous lives were destroyed, and over a million Africans were enslaved for the production of sugar. Some sugarcane stalks are almost 20 feet tall, and the leaves are surprisingly sharp, as they can even slice your skin right open. 

The cane stalks get spoiled quickly, within a day or two after sugar juice is oozed out. The laborers had to rush to the refining stations, which operated around the clock. Fatal injuries happened during the time of extraction as big wooden rollers were used to crush the stalks for the juice. 

Alongside adults, children also toiled like factory workers in open furnaces, rollers, etc. The backbreaking labor and lack of nutrition made the slaves working on sugar plantations unable to resist life-threatening diseases when compared to other working-age slaves.

As the price of sugarcane rose in the 1800s, people started looking for alternatives. One was sugar beets, which can grow in cold climates. This is when the Nazis came into the picture; they invested a lot of money into subsidizing Germany’s sugar beet industry.

The Nazi obsession with sugar also came from the leftover products after sugar beets were extracted. One side product was the slimy schlampe. When heated in a closed vessel, it would produce cyanide. And, in the early 1940s, the Nazis were quite known for their cyanide!

Sugarcane in India
Sugarcane was discovered in India in the 4-5th century. In Ayurvedic texts dating back to the fifth century, sugar is mentioned as a medicinal ingredient. Sugar was a vital export from India. Considering it a high-energy food, Buddhist monks used to carry loads to China and other South Asian countries. 
Fascinated by it, the Chinese mastered the crystallization process. 

According to legend, during the 17th century, Chinese explorer and trader Tong Atchew set up a sugar refinery in a village near Calcutta. The place was named after him and is now known as Achipur.
There are records that show sugarcane had strong roots in India. Roman historians, including Pliny the First, noted that Indian sugar was superior to that from Arabia. Hordes of Indians were also transported to the Caribbean to work on plantations. 

Health benefits of sugarcane

  • Good source of Vitamin C and antioxidants 
  • Highly fibrous, aiding digestion and liver health
  • Rich in calcium, promoting strong bones and teeth
  • Controls acne, prevents premature aging, and dark spots
  • Regulates blood sugar in moderation
  • Boosts metabolism, aiding weight loss
  • Provides relief from menstrual cramps
  • Energy booster, maintaining electrolyte balance due to its alkaline nature
  • Strengthens the liver, used in native remedies to treat jaundice

Recipes with sugarcane

Sugarcane-cucumber cocktail


  • Cucumber juice: 2 oz
  • Sugarcane juice: 1 oz
  • Rum: 1 oz
  • White Rum: 1 oz 
  • Fresh lime juice: 1 oz
  • Ginger juice: 1 tsp

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add cucumber juice, sugarcane juice, rum, fresh lime juice, and ginger juice. Add fresh ice to an old-fashioned glass, strain the cocktail into it, and serve

Sugarcane kheer 


  • Sugarcane juice: 4 cups  
  • Short grain rice: ½ cup (soaked for 30 minutes and drained)
  • Green cardamoms: 5 
  • Raisins: 10-12 
  • Saffron: A pinch  
  • Almonds: 8 (blanched, peeled and chopped) 

Add the rice and sugarcane juice to a pan. Mix on medium heat. Crush green cardamoms and add them to the pan along with raisins and a pinch of saffron strands. Mix and cook till the mixture boils. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, stir, and cook on medium heat till the rice is done and the mixture thickens. Serve hot after garnishing with chopped almonds.

Braised pork belly in sugarcane


  • Pork belly: 300g  
  • Sugarcane: 1 (20cm)
  • Spring onion: A bunch
  • Ginger: 1 (3cm)
  • Garlic: 4 cloves
  • Chilli: 2 bird-eyed chilli 
    Sauce to marinate meat 
  • Sugar: 15g
  • White wine: 15ml
  • Soy sauce: To taste
    Sauce to braise 
  • Oyster oil: 43ml
  • Sugar: 30g
  • White wine: 30 – 45ml

Boil the pork belly for 23 minutes. Add sugar, white wine, and soy sauce to a bowl and mix well. Marinate the pork belly with the sauce for a few minutes. Sprinkle a little sugar on the sugarcane and grill it at 180 degrees Celsius for seven minutes. Heat oil on a skillet, fry the pork belly till it turns golden and set it aside. In a pan, fry spring onion, ginger, garlic, chili, and grilled sugarcane. Mix ingredients to make the braised sauce and pour it into the pot. Add pork belly and fry until they combine together. Add water and cook on low flame until it boils (almost 1 hour). Flip the pork belly in between. Serve with rice.

Sugarcane with vodka


  • Vodka: 45ml
  • Sugarcane juice: As per taste
  • Cumin seeds: a pinch
  • Juice of a lemon (to taste)
  • Pink salt: a pinch
  • Ice: To serve it chill

Dry roast the cumin seeds and grind them into a coarse powder. You wouldn’t need more than a pinch of it in the cocktail. Take a glass and line it with pink salt. In a cocktail shaker, add vodka, cumin powder, sugarcane juice, a dash of lemon juice, and crushed ice. Shake it well and pour it into the glass.

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