Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sugarcane Juice

In Cuba, they call it guarapo; in Vietnam, it's called nước mía đá, and on a scorching day or a hot summer evening, there's nothing better to quench one's thirst than raw sugarcane juice, served over ice!

Hanoi is as chock-full of mía đá stands as Seattle is full of cafes (mía = sugar; đá = ice). Most have no more than a couple of low plastic tables and the usual squat stools; very few have something as elegant as a roof. These roadside stands demonstrate small-scale capitalism at its best: a sole proprietor, or husband and wife team, with a press, some sugarcane, and a street corner. Open for business to all who thirst.

In all these places the process is the same: the hard outer skin of the sugar cane is peeled, and the sugarcane fed one or two short stalks at a time through an electric press that looks like an early Industrial Age torture device. After the first pressing, the sugarcane is folded and pressed through again, usually with a squeeze of lime (as in Cuba). This process is repeated until the sugarcane is squeezed dry; the slag falls in piles to the floor, and is later sold, I believe, to start coal burners. The mía đá is then served in a glass or plastic cup over ice (or to go, in a plastic bag with a straw). Being nothing more than unprocessed sugar, you'd expect the flavor to be cloying, but fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice is surprisingly light and refreshing. On a hot day, the ice is a big part of the lure; it dilutes the sugarcane juice as it melts, and gives you something to crunch on between sips.
As intrepid as I am about street food, I was resistant at first to the lure of this drink; the glucose-rich juice is an obvious breeding-ground for microorganisms, and let's just say we try not too look too hard into the teeth of the presses, which operate all day with little more than the occasional brush-down. At this point, all I can say is I've had enough of these drinks to consider the risk worth taking. It's important to make sure the juice is green and freshly-squeezed; the longer it sits, the browner it gets, and the more likely it is to contain pathogens. Offsetting this risk is the fact that the unprocessed cane juice contains nutrients that are lost when sugar is processed; the locals I've spoken to consider nước mía đá generally nutritious, if a bit fattening.

Unlike Cuba, sugar is not a major industry in Vietnam. Consumption exceeds supply, and Vietnam imports about a third of the sugar it uses (it should be noted that a fair number of the country's processing plants are small, inefficient, and wasteful). I don't know what percentage of Vietnam's total sugar output becomes nước mía đá, but for US 30 cents, on a hot, sticky afternoon, I'm all "damn the torpedos, and gimme that drink!"

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