Uses of Sugarcane in Southeast Asian Cuisine

Sugarcane is a perennial grass that is indigenous to Southeast Asia, South Asia and other tropical and subtropical regions. Sugarcane is the source of about eighty percent of the world's sugar supply. From sugarcane also comes molasses, vinegar, rum, the Brazilian cachaça, the Thai mekhong, and ethanol.

Sugarcane requires a lot of sunshine and abundant supply of water to grow. The modern method for planting is via stem-cutting. From the cut stem, the sugarcane grows shoots at the base. These shoots produce stems which, when mature, become the sugarcane stalks.

Although sugarcane is harvested mechanically in some countries, manual harvesting is still preferred by many sugar planters as the latter results in less damage to the crop. 

Cultivated primarily to produce sugar, sugarcane is also used in various ways in Southeast Asian cuisines.

  • 01 of 04

    Peeled Sugarcane Stalks

    Cut sugarcane stalks

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    Raw sugarcane stalks can be chewed as a snack. Because the stalks are fibrous, they are not eaten per se but merely chewed to extract the juice.

    Before the sugarcane stalks are sold for this purpose, the tough skin is first cut off and discarded. In Southeast Asia, ambulant vendors with pushcarts loaded with raw sugarcane roam the streets. When there is a buyer, the vendor uses a large knife to cut off the skin. The peeled sugarcane stalk, usually wrapped in a plastic bag, is then handed to the buyer.

    Bundled peeled sugarcane stalks for cooking are available in markets. 

  • 02 of 04

    Making Sugarcane Juice

    Sugarcane juice vendors with hand-cranked machine
    Tim Gerard Barker / Lonely Plant Images / Getty Images

    Some sugarcane vendors offer buyers the option to enjoy sugarcane juice minus the chewing part. These sugarcane juice sellers have a machine specially made for pressing the tough and fibrous sugarcane stalks. The most humble versions of these machines are hand-operated; some are powered by portable generators.

  • 03 of 04

    Sugarcane Skewers

    Sugar cane used as skewers
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    One of the most interesting ways of using sugarcane stalks in cooking is as skewers. Ground meat or pastes made with minced fish or shrimps are wrapped around sugarcane stalks and grilled. As the meat or seafood cooks, the heat coaxes the sugarcane juice from the stalks and into the meat or seafood.

  • 04 of 04

    Sugarcane Candy

    Balicucha, a sugar cane candy

    Connie Veneracion

    Pure sugarcane juice is boiled until it becomes a thick syrup to make candy. In the Ilocos region (northern Philippines), balicucha-making is a traditional industry. Kids munch on the balicucha as candy while adults drop a piece into hot coffee as a substitute to the usual teaspoonful of sugar. The flavor that balicucha to coffee is incomparable.

    To make balicucha, the caramelized sugarcane juice is formed into rods. While still pliable, the rods are pulled, stretched and looped repeatedly until the color changes from brown to almost white. Smaller pieces are pinched off the large mass, shaped, and baked under the hot tropical sun until no longer sticky.