Thursday, October 13, 2011

Same Same, But Different! Part 9: Some Sugar In My Bowl

Sugar cane in Hawaii - same-same other tropical places
May 30th a year ago there was a post about processing (tao tan) the sap from sugar palms in a smaller roadside  place Southeast of Bangkok. While I was driving back home today here in Hawaii I thought of that story while cruising through thousands of acres of sugar cane and caught myself saying "same same, but different," as if I were hawking something from streetside in the Land of Smiles.

Along about the same time my nose caught the distinctive, almost sickly-sweet smell of recently burned sugar cane, and since there were no billowing clouds of smoke to signal immediate danger from doing so I followed a couple of dirt roads down to take a look-see.  

Lining these red-dirt roads were heaps of sugar cane, partially blackened by the fires that had been set a couple of days before to burn the drying leaves off of the seven- to eight-foot densely-planted fields of leafy stalks that normally sway and undulate like a green sea in the trade winds.  That in and of itself is an impressive sight when you're flying over them.

There's  around 20,000 thousand acres of it harvested in Hawaii each year, down from what seems to have been the high of 140,000 acres in 1940 - most likely because of the high amount of water needed to irrigate it and the environmental fallout, both figurative and literal.  That produces around 200,000 tons of sugar.  The latest figure I could find for Thailand (1996) was 62,000 tons.

Farmers stop watering the cane a few months before they intend to harvest it, and this allows the cane leaves to dry out, making it easier to burn - and burn it does.  If you're anywhere in the area you can see the dense, wide plumes of smoke rising into the sky, taking with it the ashes from the quick, wild burn.

A small amount of cane after a burn
The wind carries and spreads that around, and while it makes for some gorgeous sunsets that particulate matter is just as irritating for the lungs of some folks as the pollution in, say, Bangkok or somewhere in the countryside of Thailand; the sugar and rice fields often being burned off there at the end of the season, too. In addition to the smoke there's also what is sometimes called "black snow" here; bits of black ash that rain down wherever the breezes carry them - sometimes to the other side of the island or further.

The claw! The claw! - egrets watch the loading and look for food

After the cane leaves are burned away, it's bulldozed down into long, heaping rows that are then scooped up with a claw and loaded onto trucks, like the one below.  From there it's taken to a processing plant, where it's ground up and turned into raw sugar, molasses, brown sugar and the snow-white version you're used to seeing.

A loaded truck heads for the plant
A good 40 years ago I was in Mexico for a month and lived in a small town that was kept alive by virtue of a sugar processing factory a few kilometers away from the home I stayed in. When the wind was not in our favor you couldn't get away from the sweet smell of the plant. I'm reminded of that time so often while here in the islands, and it's a nice memory.

A old processing plant in Puunene, Hawaii - still up and running


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that post. Question..perhaps I should already know this, but I don't. What are the approximate dates for planting and harvesting in Thailand? ...for both Rice and Sugarcane. And is it just one season per year, or do they get more than one crop within a season? Thanks


khunbaobao said...

I don't have an easy answer for you on that one, sorry to say. With the industrialization of sugar in Hawaii it's usually ready in about a year. In Thailand, depending on rain, type and water (cane needs a LOT of regular water) it can take up to two years.

Rice really isn't usually grown in the Hawaiian Islands. The native staple for consumable starch is poi, the pulverized root of the taro plant. Not my favorite dish here.

Rice in Thailand is traditionally planted in their Spring and harvested in the fall.