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Sugar cane for all your needs

Like maple syrup in Quebec, cane sugar plays a huge part in the culture of the region that surrounds Cali, the Valle del Cauca. It generates an enormous amount of revenue for the region, and, other than its use as a sweetener and in traditional desserts, is turned into many products including rum and ethanol. All school children in Cali have been taken on fieldtrips to the Cane Sugar Museum, and anyone who has traveled through the countryside has chewed on raw cane, sucking out the sweet juices, cut for them by a farmer with the machete that all farmers from the region carry on their belts. Each year a girl is crowned the national “Reina de la Caña de Azúcar y la Panela”, beauty queen of the sugar cane.

Juice made from freshly pressed sugar cane makes a very refreshing drink on a typically sweltering day in Cali. On the street it's sold as guarapo and you can watch the vender feed the stalks through the hand-cranked press. Panela, probably the most iconic product of cane sugar in the region, is unprocessed cane sugar boiled down until hard discs or blocks. It's used in many traditional desserts and in agua panela, a drink made by boiling panela with water. In hot weather it's served over ice with lime juice to make a caramel-dark brown sugar flavored “limonada”, whereas in colder climates like Bogota it's served steaming hot, with or without the lime juice (and sometimes with the addition of cheese, the same concept as chocolate con queso...I frankly prefer the chocolate version). Agua panela is also prescribed as the remedy for every cold and chill you might catch, especially with a couple of slices of fresh ginger thrown in along with the squeeze of lime; it's considered very nutritious and is very soothing for sore throats.

Asking Colombians for a recipe for agua panela is kind of like asking an American for a recipe to make PB&J: what you receive in response is a blank stare because the answer is considered too damn obvious. Most people, when they want to make agua panela con limón, will boil panela with water, add lime juice, and stick the whole thing in the fridge to chill for later. As I lack the planning-ahead gene, I find it much easier to make a thin syrup that I can then use immediately by mixing it with cold water and serving it over ice. I make this a lot, both for myself and for people who happen to be over for an impromptu meal. Most people don't know what it is, but the response after trying it is invariably, "what is this delicious thing?" To which I answer, oh, you know, the nutritionally sound base for ethanol...

Agua Panela con Limón

 

  • 4 oz. panela (also sold as rapadura), in big chunks or grated (unless you've already bought it pre-grated, sold as "panela instantanea", it's really not necessary to grate it here)
  • cinnamon stick, 4 cloves, a few slices of fresh ginger (optional)
  • 1 lime
  • cold water
  • ice

 

Place the panela in a small pot along with 6 oz. of water and the cinnamon and cloves, if using. Bring to a low boil and let simmer until the panela has completely dissolved, about 5 minutes (depending on how big your chunks are; instant panela will dissolve much faster-- thus the name); you will have a very thin syrup. Take off the heat and let cool for as long as you like (I use it immediately-- as I said, poor planning skills). Stir 3-4 Tbsp. of the syrup with 5-6 oz. of cold water (depending on how sweet/strong you want it) and a couple big squeezes of lime juice (about 1/4 lime per cup), pour into a glass over ice. Repeat with the rest of the syrup. Makes 3-4 servings.

For agua panela served hot, boil 4 oz. panela with 32 oz. (4 cups of water) and any additional spices, simmering until the panela dissolves. Serve hot, with a squeeze of lime juice if you like.

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