16 Oct2005

Sugar Cane

by Marketman

Sugar is simply fascinating. This incredible stalk of grass (yes, it is a grass) was at cane1the market the other day so I bought it with the intention of just peeling, gnawing on the fiber and extracting all of the sugarcane juices. Then I thought I should really find out more about this plant/ingredient that figures so prominently in our food today and promptly got stuck for hours reading, exploring, googling, etc. That’s why there was no post yesterday! Here is the seriously distilled version of thousands of pages of incredible information on sugarcane and sugar. About two-thirds of the world sugar supply today comes from sugar cane (the rest from beets! and other plants) and Saccharum officinarum is the most prolific cane of all. Believed to have originated from a wild grass in New Guinea, it spread throughout Southeast Asia, then on to India where the recorded history there is extensive starting several centuries B.C., then the Middle East. It was later brought by the Spaniards and Portuguese to Central and South America which then all sparked off the slave trade from Africa, etc. etc.

Sugar cane was probably growing wild throughout many parts of the Philippines in pre-historic times. cane2It is generally agreed that people probably figured out it tasted really good and our ancestors were likely munching on cane for juice way back when. It is generally believed that we were crudely refining sugar cane to the rough equivalent of very raw brown sugar by the early 1700’s in home kitchens using wood fires. But that they would convert this grass into the white refined sugar we so dearly treasure today as part of our “3 in 1” packets of Nescafe, Coffeemate and sugar or sprinkled on our light-as-air broas, sweetening our pastillas, yemas, etc., did not likely occur until the mid 1800’s. An enterprising British (not Spanish!) entrepreneur named Nicholas Loney brought western sugar refining machinery to Negros and the rich era of sugar based wealth was born. He did this because he had a thriving business in textile imports from England (that effectively killed local textile artisans) and he needed some goods to put on the empty ships back to Europe. So he encouraged locals to grow sugar. I am making a guess that most of our sweet desserts in the style of Spanish colonizers really came to the fore around this time. Prior to the 1850’s we probably had palm sugar and very dark brown sugars that at best flavored rice flour based desserts, etc. Thus my skepticism about Boholano and other Filipino/Spanish style desserts arising from church construction in the 1500’s (just wrong, churches there built much later) and the egg whites used to set the mortar set off millions of egg yolks to use in desserts…

At any rate, sugar became plentiful and cheap in the 1800’s and we started this boom in baked sweets. Isn’t it amazing that nearly every type of baked munchies or regional specialties are probably less than 150 years old? And before that we rarely had the taste of sugar in our diet? Frankly, it doesn’t come across here but I was fascinated by what I read. My day is so filled with sugar that I can’t imagine life without it. My daughter would have a nervous breakdown if she was forced to give up all forms of sugar except gnawing on some cane like in these photographs! We are so dependent on sugar we avoid it by drinking diet coke with synthetic sugar made from sugar!!! Anyway, instead of getting carried away, enjoy these photos of a really stunning cane of sugar (not like the thin canes from Batangas, these were thick, deep maroon and hard as bamboo canes) and I hope they bring back memories of your childhood when you used to munch on the fibrous and sweet cane… I tried some yesterday and nearly broke off some expensive dental work… unless the cane is wickedly fresh, the memory seems far better than reality… heehee.



  1. ajb says:

    Ahhhh, fond memories….in Texas. The place I grew up was right next to a town called Sugarland, named after its once chief crop. The stuff they sell at the local grocery now is not so good. You know it’s too old when you can smell alcohol.

    Oct 16, 2005 | 11:02 am


  2. Notice: Undefined variable: oddcomment in /home/marketman/marketmanila.com/wp-content/themes/marketmanila-v2/comments.php on line 33
  3. Ann says:

    here in Dubai, some indian cafeterias are selling fresh sugar cane juice. they have a “large juicer” specialy made for sugarcane only. i’ve tasted that many times, and really refreshing. at least i don’t have to hurt my jaw munching on the cane :)

    Oct 16, 2005 | 2:03 pm

  4. aleth says:

    the photos really brought back childhood memories . . but i had my sugar cane cut up into small sticks for easy munching, but still got the real taste!!

    Oct 16, 2005 | 4:08 pm

  5. fried-neurons says:

    Sugarcane and sugarcane juice always remind me of my childhood… after grocery shopping with my mom at the Makati Supermarket, she would always get my brother and me some sugarcane juice at one of the stalls at the supermarket, outside the checkout registers. Yeah, that juice and some of that chinese sausage thingie.. quickyam or something like that…

    Oct 16, 2005 | 5:52 pm

  6. Apicio says:

    Although we misplaced it as to timing, there is probably factual basis to the use of eggwhites as binder for wall plaster which gave rise to our egg-based group of recipes calling for lots of yolks. Similar desserts had been deviced in Mexico (Central America) since eggyolk was the by-product of using whites as fixative for gold leaf. One of the many churches so adorned is San Martin in Tepozotlán whose entire main altar gleams with gold. This church (now a museum for the Vice-regal era) deserves a detour for its collection of ivory santos that originated in the Philipppines. Back in the Iberian peninsula though, eggwhite is used to clarify wine (just like consommé). The yolks are then donated to the local convents keeping the nuns occupied (you know what they say about idle hands) confecting the yolks to, shall we say, heavenly delicacies.

    I came across somewhere that at one point, Britain was importing most of its sugar from us. This trade of course intensified when the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Not too surprising too because the English were probably boycotting Brazilian sugar to compel them to stop slavery which for the longest time fueled Brazilian economy, social life and cuisine. Check out Gilberto Freyre’s sensually suggestive sociological studies starting with CASA-GRANDE & senzala, the big house of the white masters and the slave quarters of the captiuve African workers of the big sugar estates. Fittingly enough, he topped his seminal trilogy with a history/recipe book simply called Açucar.

    Oct 16, 2005 | 8:55 pm

  7. Marketman says:

    Apicio, I am bowled over by the clarity, intensity, knowledge of your comments. I agree that egg whites were likely used as a binder… I traveled to churches in Bohol with a friend who is also an architect and he confirmed this. But the binder was just to set the heavy stones in place and as the rains came, the sand essentially washed away, leaving the stones in place and the whole thing standing from the weight and pressure and the resulting effects that only engineers can explain. This was fascinating to me as he pointed out the central stone at the top of an arch (forgot what it’s called) which “hung” in the air without cement…

    So yes, there is some truth to the probable source of “torta” that egg-yolk based cake in Bohol that was possibly a result of all the egg-whites used in church construction… but the lack of refined sugar still makes timing an issue. A lot of the British sugar trade started in the 1860’s… there are several websites with fascinating information about this period. If you don’t mind too much may I ask what you for your day job? Historian? Professor? Extremely well-read retiree with a penchant for food? Made your million young and specialize in an erudite version of trivial pursuit?

    Oct 16, 2005 | 9:15 pm

  8. AN says:

    There was refined sugar production in the Philippines since the 18th century, at least within the confines of the religious estates in Luzon. Some of this sugar was then exported, though in small quantities, to various parts of the British empire, to Britain itself, and even to the United States. However, the taste for sugar, though not of the “export quality” grade, among the natives of the Philippines goes back to at least the middle of the 17th century. Filipinos may not have developed the Hispanic-Mexican style desserts that Apicio writes of since they knew of other fixatives for gold-leaf (the saliva of pregant women, for example). But it would be safe to assume that the more highly-Hispanized areas of the Philippines may have already been consuming sweet, egg-yolk heavy, Western-inspired desserts — which does not necessarily require white sugar — even before Nicolas Loney or Yves Gaston. What is more interesting is the link between Filipino sugar consumption and the labor expenditure required by, rather than the actual product of, the 19th century Philippine modern sugar industry. Heavy toil in the cane fields may have inspired a longing for sweetness, a cheap thrill after all the blood, sweat, and tears.

    Oct 17, 2005 | 3:43 am

  9. Marketman says:

    Apicio and AN, what a fantastic discussion. I agree we had sugar for eons. However, I have been unable to unearth anything that says we had it in anything more than subsistence farming until about 1800. The difficulty with which boiling and processing it by hand with wood fires makes it unlikely that this was a common ingredient back then. Exports to Britain likely started in the mid-1800’s, some say because of the need to load cargo on empty ships that brought English textiles our way. I also agree that many of the first desserts likely used rawer sugars but I still hold to the theory that much of our sweet culinary history is relatively very recent…say the last +/- 150 years… In Bohol, for example, everyone says the sweets occurred around the time the brilliant large churches requiring 1,000,000 (estimated?) eggs each. Then the plaques read 1500’s but in fact the stone structures you see today were made late 1700’s or early 1800’s. Fascinating…

    Oct 17, 2005 | 5:49 am

  10. Marketman says:

    P.S. – I would like to think that palm sugar or blocks of other less refined cane sugars could have been imported from China and elsewhere as well. Such sugars would have been perfect matches for rice based desserts as opposed to the more colonial egg based desserts.

    Oct 17, 2005 | 5:52 am

  11. Apicio says:

    Quoting AN “Heavy toil in the cane fields may have inspired a longing for sweetness, a cheap thrill after all the blood, sweat, and tears.”

    A carbo-rush, if I may add. But would sugar really be cheap and not be considered a luxury food item, specially taking into account that it is a prime export commodity, and therefore something that the labouring class would certainly not have free access to?

    To Marketman

    Firewood was the only fuel used for boiling down sugarcane juice both in the kabyawan (cane-field harvest) that predated centralization and in the sugar centrals themselves up to the early seventies. There was a huge brass kawa in my town that we used as swimming pool as kids that originally served as reduction pan for cane juice before WWII.

    Since palm sugar seems indigenous to Southeast Asia, we probably possessed the knowledge to process sugarcane juice too and did not really need to import them from China. This does not discount though that early in history, the technology itself might have been introduced into Southeast Asia from Arabia by way of China.

    And lastly, I see myself as an impassioned amateur, curious about anything with Filipino connection such as what links Goan Bebenca with our own Bibingka.

    Oct 17, 2005 | 8:31 am

  12. aleth says:

    kudos to the comments above! really enjoyed reading this article about sugar cane / sugar… very interesting indeed . .

    Oct 17, 2005 | 1:44 pm

  13. Mila says:

    The historical comments from Apicio and An put us all to shame! No, but the only thought I had after reading your post was the memory of a Caucasian tourist trying to eat/chew sugarcane with the brown rind still on. If you think your dental work was at risk, imagine what happened to theirs. Ouch.

    Oct 17, 2005 | 4:49 pm

  14. Marketman says:

    Marco Gavio Apicio was a gourmet in ancient Roman times in the court of Tiberius. He is said to have invented various sauces and dishes using the finest produce and ingredients available to him at the time. He wrote the “The Art of Cooking” on luxurious cuisine of the time. Legend has it that he poisoned himself to death rather than die of starvation after he spent his money on all of his wonderful food… ah, what a wonderful pen name to use…bravo Apicio!

    Mila, too funny, that story. Everyone else, glad you just thought back to that tough chew on a sweet stalk! Cheers!

    Oct 17, 2005 | 6:36 pm

  15. AN says:

    In a country where truth is stranger than fiction, stories regarding the use of eggs in the construction of colonial churches, while seemingly apocryphal, is actually based on fact. As Regalado Trota Jose writes in “Simbahan: Church Art in Colonial Philippines, 1565-1898”:
    “Dismissed by many as hearsay, or just too mind-boggling (how many super-hens were needed to lay all those eggs?) these stories are backed by documents stating that eggs were indeed used with mortar. The dome of the Manila Cathedral was sealed in 1780 with a curious layer of lime, powdered brick, duck eggs, and bamboo sap, the durability of which, according to the engineer, had been well-tested in the country. Fr. Mariano Gomes of Bacoor, Cavite, listed duck eggs for the mortar in his expense list for 1824; his predecessor in 1808 had also used eggs. Furthermore, it is recorded that 200 duck eggs as well were used for the paletada (stucco covering) of the cistern in Imus, Cavite, in 1828. One wonders whether the entire egg was used or whether it was just the whites. The answer would probably help explain the popularity of delicacies utilizing egg yolks, such as yema, leche flan, tocino del cielo, and pan de San Nicolas” (pp. 37-8).

    Wouldn’t the use of eggs — and even in some instances molasses — as construction material be prohibitively expensive? Not really. And costs shouldn’t really matter among a people who spared no expense in their displays of piety. As Fernado Zialcita writes in “Philippine Ancestral Houses,” based on his interview with a foreman who “specializes in tearing down walls” only “a few drops” of egg and molasses “sufficed to make… sand and lime cohere together into the perfect glue” (43). Wouldn’t the use of mortar be wasteful anyway since it would washed away by the elements and since the sheer weight of church walls ensured their stability? Well, the mortar would not have washed away since the egg enriched palitada was applied to the church walls to protect them from erosion — a lesson learned too late by misguided restorers in the 1970s who stripped colonial churches of their stucco “skin,” exposing the brick or stone underneath for a more aged look.

    But back to sugar. There is evidence that sugar was being produced in the Philippines beyond subsistence levels before the rise of the mid-nineteenth century Negros plantations. John Larkin, in “Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society,” for example cites a 1646 text to support his claim that “sugar abounded in the islands and served as evidence of native wealth” (21). Dennis Roth in an essay in “Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations” notes that as early as the 17th century the Agustinian and Jesuit orders, using New World techniques, were already producing sugar in their Philippine haciendas. The early, carabao-driven sugar presses may have been introduced by the Chinese as William Henry Scott points out in “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society,” but the sugar consumed in the Philippines during the early Spanish colonial period was mostly Philippine-made. John Larkin states that refined sugar was being produced in San Pedro Tunasan and Makati in the early 18th century and in Pasay and Nasugbu a few decades later. In Pampanga, commercial grades of sugar was being produced as early as the late 17th century, the marketing of which was dominated by the Chinese. Some of this Philippine produced sugar was exported abroad. Larkin writes, “[b]y the 1750s, Nicholas Norton Nicols, a naturalized Spanish subject living in Manila, pointed out that substantial quantities of Philippine sugar reached both the Coromandel and Malabar coasts of India, Bengal, Persia, and China. The early pilon sugar industry in the archipelago met those needs.” (23).

    Finally, in answer to Apicio, I’m not sure about Filipino sugar cane workers, but the European working classes were able to buy sugar relatively cheaply in the 19th century. Sugar was indeed considered a luxury item before that time and that mystique of luxury never quite vanished after the cost of sugar fell. This contradictory nature of sugar — both cheap and luxurious — explained its mass appeal. As Sidney Mintz observes in “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” for the early European working class, consuming sugar made them feel as if they did not have any chains to lose and that they were in fact free. Despite the horrendous conditions in which they lived and worked — conditions worse, according to planters in the antebellum American South, than slavery — they were at least able to afford something once considered dear. No wonder that even spoonful of sugar would cast such a powerful spell.

    Oct 18, 2005 | 2:12 am

  16. Marketman says:

    AN I am speechless. Mouth agape. Stunned and humbled at the same time. A researcher of sugar of unbelievable intensity. Thank you for those comments…I feel I know so much more than the Mcdonald’s version to sugar of just a few days ago. Really, truly fantastic. Hmmm, all that reference to duck eggs is interesting, imagine all those leche flans, yemas, tocino del cielo made with duck eggs? Much richer, more deadly as well… Again, AN and Apicio, many thanks!

    Oct 18, 2005 | 8:23 am

  17. Marketman says:

    Btw, I use egg whites and sugar to make “cement” for my annual gingerbread houses…and it is hard as cement. So I do agree they used egg whites or eggs as a binder in the 18th century or even earlier. It is the appearance of lots of sugar and excess egg yolks that forms our desserts and that is where I think this happens only in the 1800’s or so… I am so intrigued by this discussion that I might try making my own mortar and joining some hollow blocks…

    Oct 18, 2005 | 8:28 am

  18. Apicio says:

    Thank you so much AN for nuturing our enthusiasm with proper references and anchoring our speculations to solid footnotes. And even bigger thanks and congratulations to Marketman for making it possible for a felicitous forum such as this to happen. I am looking forward to your Christmas postings.

    Oct 18, 2005 | 6:09 pm

  19. Kilalamoako says:

    I am looking for sugar cane juicer for home use only. Please advice where I can buy. Maybe around PhP 3,000 to PhP 5,000 only. I look at the internet and found sugar cane juicer for commercial use at the range of US$1,000 to US$3,000 I do not need such expensive machine. Please email me at kilalamoako@hotmail.com

    Thank you and best regards.

    Oct 22, 2006 | 6:33 pm

  20. Marketman says:

    Sorry, I am not aware of any “personal or home size” sugar cane juicers…

    Oct 22, 2006 | 6:41 pm

  21. yogi says:

    I was chuckling as I read how the author of the article notes how one cant imagine a life without sugar in modern times. So I had to write!

    I stopped eating/using white or brown sugar completely about 5 years back (& I eat zero processed food) — raw sugarcane is one of the sources for satisfying the sweet tooth (besides other sweet fruits).

    Are you guys even aware that most modern dental diseases are caused due to suboptimal use of the jaw since we eat very soft processed food( & natural food is almost absent)

    I would suggest anyone who reads this – to start chewing on raw sugarcane daily – use your teeth/gums or lose em to modern dental care.

    The choice is yours :-)

    Nov 1, 2006 | 10:31 pm

  22. ernie del rosario says:

    I am doing a research on the history of sugar milling in the Philippines and I need help on finding an authentic picture of the centuries-old “kabyawan” – the horizontal cylindrical stone mill used in crushing juice from the sugar cane for round latter boiling into molasses and thick sugar syrup. This is powered through a wooden lever where a carabao is strapped. The carabao goes round and round while the raw sugar stalks are fed in between the two slabs of the stone mill.

    Pls help !


    Dec 4, 2007 | 9:22 am


    Looking forward to purchase White refined sugar from you well estimed factory

    Feb 29, 2008 | 2:20 pm

  24. theresa says:

    where can i buy a juicer here in manila aside from internet and tv shopping?? tnx!!!

    Mar 10, 2008 | 4:07 pm

  25. nightflyer says:

    Hello Marketman

    That picture showing maroon stalks of sugarcane really brings back happy childhood memories.

    But let me clear up a few things. There are two types of sugarcane: the chewing variety and the HYVs (high yielding varieties) developed for milling. You can buy the cane for chewing from your palengke. It has shorter nodes and shorter stalks than the milling varieties which you generally find in the plantations and haciendas that supply cane for the sugar mills or centrals.

    The milling varieties usually have longer nodes to store more juice, longer and therefore thinner stalks—like the ones you saw in Batangas—for the leaves to catch sunlight better, and much harder covering as protection against insects and diseases, and to discourage naughty boys from pulling out a stalk or two from the wagons or trucks that transport the canes to the sugar central.

    Jun 27, 2008 | 1:00 am

  26. nightflyer says:

    And to Ernie del Rosario

    I’m not so sure, but I think there used to be a kabyawan at the lobby of the former offices of the Philippine Sugar Institute along North Avenue in Quezon City.

    Jun 27, 2008 | 1:05 am

  27. andrea gazmin says:

    to Mr. Ernie del Rosario..have u finished your research bout the history of sugar milling in the Philippines? I also have a thesis about Kabyawan Industry..we have no idea bout it or how it looks like, your research will help us and it will serve as my reference..

    pls help me..thank u

    Aug 5, 2008 | 11:46 am

  28. abdool essa says:

    I am looking to buy a bagasse depither can you give me some leads for manufacturers in your country

    Aug 31, 2008 | 3:42 am

  29. Nuhaa Soobhany says:

    Hi.I am a second year student in Beng (Hons)Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Mauritius.I have a module about sugar technology and while surfing on the net, i find this article which is very interesting and wil be of great use to me.Thank you very much.

    Aug 31, 2008 | 2:33 pm

  30. Marketman says:

    Nuhaa, glad to be of some help… good luck with the sugar studies…

    Aug 31, 2008 | 3:37 pm

  31. HILARIO D. BARROZO says:

    I just want to know,if sugarcane planting or harvesting in the Philippines is seasonal or perenial? Please answer my question thru my e mail or any medium you are convenient with.
    Thanks alot.


    Sep 9, 2008 | 10:05 pm

  32. maila says:

    sugarcane planting / harvesting is seasonal
    milling in negros usually starts in szeptember and lasts until july while in luzon and mindanao, november-may

    Sep 22, 2008 | 11:50 pm

  33. bizhub says:

    Anybody has an idea where can I purchase a portable sugar cane juicer in manila.



    Sep 26, 2008 | 3:44 am

  34. coco sugar says:

    I’m just as interested about what sweeteners were we using before the Spanish introduced sugar cane. Palm sugar were the main sweetener in our neighbors in south east asia but I wonder why it never became popular, even in areas of Mindanao (ie outside Zamboanga city) where there were little or no Spanish influence.

    I know only of Pakaskas of southern Luzon and tibuk-tibuk, palm sugar made from the Buri palm and the Nipa tree, respectively.

    Oct 8, 2008 | 2:06 pm

  35. ronak says:

    hey i wanted to know that can we store sugar cane in cold storage or not?

    Nov 10, 2008 | 2:33 am

  36. Rhea says:

    Hi MM. The pic above seems to be the La Carlota variety of sugarcane that I know.

    Mar 24, 2009 | 10:00 am


Market Manila Home · Topics · Archives · About · Contact · Links · RSS Feed

site design by pixelpush

Market Manila © 2004 - 2021