Throughout India, you can see small roadside stands on which machines with big metal handles wait to be cranked into action (by hand or with the aid of small generators), to wring sweet green juice from thick canes stacked up nearby.
I came across this stand on the riverbank in Hampi, reliant on parched tourists passing by. The young boy, helping his father, spun the handle furiously to send the canes through the wringer.
In Bundi, sprigs of fresh mint or quartered limes were pushed through with the sugar cane, to flavour the juice. Wherever rice and wheat are grown, it seems, a crop of sugar cane with its distinctive spiky green leaves and reddish brown canes will not be far away.
On the road to Periyar, we stopped the van and crossed between paddy fields to this small shack, to see the preparation of another common sugar product in action.
Jaggery is unrefined sugar with only a minimum of processing and no added ingredients. Raw sugarcane is crushed in a machine only slightly more industrial than the roadside hand-crank, to extract the juice.
This is poured into a vast wok-shaped pan, under which a fire is lit using the dried husks and leaves of the sugar cane – nothing is wasted.
The juice evaporates, sending a sickly smell through the air, and leaving a thick granular paste…
…which can be shaped into balls or tubes to harden, or poured into shallow trays to set and be cut into squares.
It’s used for sweets and to add richness to curries, varying from region to region. It’s also an ingredient in palm wine/toddy.
Or you can just drink the juice, which tastes, well… pretty much like liquid sugar.