Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How to Chop and Prepare Sugarcane

For Blondee47, who asked for directions after a many-many-months-long search to find sugarcane in Canada just so she can make my recipe for Chao Tom (Vietnamese Grilled Shrimp Paste Wrapped Around Sugarcane). And also because she always leaves such nice comments after she tries one of my recipes. :)

Sugarcane 1

OK, so go into your backyard and cut down some sugarcane. What? You don't grow sugarcane in your backyard you say? You mean everyone doesn't do that?! If you don't grow your own sugarcane, I've seen them sold at the Farmers' Market - Alhambra, and in some Asian and Latino grocery stores.

My ba noi (paternal grandmother) planted this patch of sugarcane on a 1-foot wide strip behind my second-youngest uncle's house about 20 years ago.

Sugarcane 2

I chopped down one stalk. The longer half is a little over 5 feet, so the whole stalk was around 8 feet tall.

Sugarcane 3

Now, suppose you do want to grow your own sugarcane. When buying sugarcane, look for a section with a bud of growth at the joints. You can chop off both ends since the joints are too tough to eat, leaving a section that looks like what you see below. Bury that in the ground, and provided you have the right weather conditions, it should turn into a stalk of sugarcane. Sugarcane spreads so you'll eventually get more than one stalk.

Sugarcane 4

You'll want to spread out a lot of newspapers and do this on the floor. It's gonna get messy and sticky. See the cross-section of the joint? Very tough to eat so you'll want to discard that.

Sugarcane 5

I used a cheap butcher knife/cleaver that I bought from the Asian grocery store. Kiwi brand for less than $5 I believe. Chop the sugarcane on both sides of the joints, as close to the joint as possible so you don't waste any of the edible fibers. I placed my knife over the spot I'd like to chop, then use a hammer to pound it down. No picture of the hammer since I only had two hands and one was holding the knife and the other was holding the camera. :P

Sugarcane 6

You'll then get a nice section like the one on the bottom with no joints.

Sugarcane 7

Sugarcane has a very hard outer shell? rind? so you'll want to remove that.

Random family anecdote. My ong ngoai (Vietnamese maternal grandfather) had black lacquered teeth, a Vietnamese custom that stretches back to the 2 millennium BC. Nhuom rang den (Vietnamese black lacquered teeth) is not to be confused with teeth stained dark red-brown from chewing betelnut. Lacquered teeth were once regarded as a sign of beauty but fell out of practice sometime in the 20th century. It was a painstaking process. After the lacquer was applied, it took several days to set so you couldn't eat until it hardened. Or if you did eat, it was most likely Chao (Vietnamese Rice Porridge) that was poured straight down the throat, to avoid touching the teeth. The lacquer also had a practical purpose, it served to prevent tooth decay. Up until his 80s, my ong ngoai never had a cavity and stripped sugarcane with his bare teeth. Yes, that hard outer rind of sugarcane that you see in the picture below. With his bare teeth. Well into his 80s. My ong ngoai was the man! I, unfortunately, am not. So I used a knife.

Sugarcane 8

Hold the section of sugarcane upright with the knife near the edge. Just pound down until the outside is removed.

Sugarcane 9

Keep going until all of the outer rind is gone. You can then lightly wash the inside section of sugarcane if you wish. I don't. That's sort of like washing fruit after peeling it. Removes the flavor.

Sugarcane 10

Hold the sugarcane upright again and chop it down the center.

Sugarcane 11

And then chop again into quarter-length sections. If you don't have access to a supply of free sugarcane, you might want to be more judicious and chop it again for the recipe.

Sugarcane 12

Now, suppose you don't get a nice long section of sugarcane. You can still make chao tom with smaller sections.

Sugarcane 13

It may take several joints to have a section big enough to wrap the shrimp paste around. Chop off outside joints like before, but save the middle joint.

Sugarcane 14

Then strip it like before, but this time with the middle joint intact.

Sugarcane 15

Cut into sections like before. Be careful since the joints might prevent the sugarcane from being chopped cleanly through.

Sugarcane 16

And that's it. You've now got nice long sections of sugarcane to wrap shrimp paste around and grill. Just remember not to eat the joints If you don't feel like cooking, you can munch on the sugarcane as a sweet snack. Take the cleaned quarter-length sections and chop into bite-sized pieces.

Sugarcane 17

Just chew and chew until every bit of sweetness from the sugarcane is extracted. Then spit out the fibers. I know it's not appetizing, but that chewed up section on the upper right of the photo shows you what that looks like.

Sugarcane 18

Cleaned, chopped sugarcane ready for snacking.

Sugarcane 19

You can also chill the sugarcane in the fridge for a cold sweet snack. Or boil it for a naturally sweet drink like my ba noi used to do.

Sugarcane 20


Now that you've got some nice clean sections, you can make my recipe for Chao Tom (Vietnamese Grilled Shrimp Paste Wrapped Around Sugarcane).

Or you can buy freshly pressed sugarcane juice from some Vietnamese bakeries and restaurants. Some of the places I've blogged about that sell nuoc mia (sugarcane juice).
Banh Mi & Che Cali Restaurant - Alhambra
C&C Express (C&C Food Co.) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
China Town Deli - Los Angeles (Chinatown)

1 year ago today, a little experimentation resulted in Egg Rolls with Salmon and Avocado.


  1. oh how i miss eating sugarcane. i has been forever since i last munched on fresh sugarcane. bring back memories of being at my grandma's.

  2. Thanks for the photo tutorial. *swallows saliva*

  3. Oh thankyou thankyou and thankyou...all the sugarcane is waiting for me which brings another question to long can sugarcane last if not all cut up?

    i will let u know after i have tried the cutting even tho it seems a daunting task....

  4. Great tutorial! Now how's about a tutorial on how to make rum from all that sugarcane!!!

  5. a quick hello from me :) that's a really good tutorial. Shame I can't find any sugarcanes over here.

  6. wow, what a labor of love. it looks wonderful though. this was a great and interesting post. thanks!

  7. Back in the day when we grew this, I would chew these until my teeth hurt. Now I can't chew them any more until I get some teeth word done!
    That is a beautiful bounty of sugarcane!

  8. First your uncle's meyer lemon tree, then your pomegranate tree, now this... you must stop tormenting me :)

    *random story*
    I remember this family friend having a bunch of sugar cane in her yard and she even bought one of those press/machines to make her own cane juice. One time, she was demonstrating (or, showing off) her machine to us. And afterwards, brought out juice that she had kept frozen from previous pressings-- it was brown and discolored (oxidation?) Why she didn't just serve us fresh stuff I have no idea.

    Anyway, I miss fresh cane juice a great deal. I finally found a place in Detroit that makes it. I'll be making chao tom for sure. Your step-by-step tutorial is really helpful.

  9. Woa sugarcanes! Haven't seen one for ages. When I was small, I could strip it with my teeth, and bit it into pieces, also with my teeth. No wonder I had to get some teeth work done :-)
    Want to hear something "romantic"? Well, as I said, I could strip sugarcanes with my teeth, but I didn't like doing it very much - the shell was hard. So my friend (a boy) usually did it for me. Not the best hygiene practice, but hey, we were close (*blush*) and I was 9. I ate everything.
    To me, sugarcanes = childhood.

  10. Great tutorial! I always loved chomping on the sugarcane stick after eating chao tom. Someday when we buy our own house I can't wait to grow yummy things in the yard, like sugarcane!

  11. I wish I knew this when I was living on Maui...all the sugarcane you could want.
    Good thing you don't have to "burn the cane field" to harvest yours.
    If you have left over cane sticks, you can use them for fancy swizzle sticks for iced tea.

  12. Cool post...i miss sugar cane juice. they use to sell that back home on the street, its the best on a hot day. of course the one they sell is mixed with water, but its still good. brings back memories. thanks for the post

  13. I remember that I used to chew on sugar canes when I was little!

  14. I'm a big fan of sugarcane juce although I dont like chewing it. AR does though.. love your step by step instructions..very clear.

  15. bluang3lbby,
    Sugarcane reminds me of my grandma too. :)

    There should be plenty of sugarcane in Florida!

    You're welcome. Sorry it took so long. If you don't cut it up, sugarcane lasts a pretty long time. Probably months actually. The ends will dry out a bit, so just make sure you keep the joints on there so the inside doesn't dry out.

    I leave the alcoholic recipes to you. :)

    Yeah, the UK isn't known for sugarcane. Wait, surely there must be some with all those British Indies immigrants?

    You're welcome!

    Surely you two have this in your garden? You've got everything in that garden!

    Wha? Why would that person show off everything and then serve you the leftovers? And after she realized it turned brown, she should have freshly pressed some nuoc mia for her guests. That's just bad hostessing.

    Aww. They never talk about stripping sugarcane with bare teeth when discussing true love. ;)

    When you get your own place with a yard, I'll happily share cuttings. :)

    The sugarcane from the garden isn't large enough to necessitate burning thankfully. That's be some fancy swizzle sticks alright!

    Most of the VNese nuoc mia places don't add water. Lots of ice. But it's usually pure pressed sugarcane juice. See my Chinatown Deli post for the pictures. You can see him pressing it right in front of you.

    I still do! :)

    I prefer the juice myself, but the pressing machines are expensive! So chewing it is.

  16. I was in a new Asian market in Cleveland yesterday and they had SC. I bought a 5 ft section for $3. I wanted Parker to experience some natural Vietnamese candy, as my tutor calls it. Beyond that I think I'm going to try a couple other recipes with it, I assume it'll last in the fridge for a week or two. Thanks for the instructions, they will definitely make getting to the good parts easier.

  17. Jonathan,
    That's pretty cheap for sugarcane in Ohio?!

  18. Wow. Very awesome pictumentary, lesson, and background. I learned a lot for my first piece of sugarcane, purchased today...thanks!

  19. I have an easier way to "chop or cut" sugarcane. Just buy a PVC pipe cutter from Home Depot, Lowes or Harbor Freight. They also break open Macadamia nuts too ( I grow in So. Cal. )


    1. Gordon, your PVC pipe cutter idea is brilliant! You have solved both our sugar cane problem and our macadamia nut problem.

  20. Zero,

    Thanks for the tip. But that costs extra money, and I always have a butcher knife in the kitchen. So this is more practical for me.

  21. VERY NICE INSTRUCTIONS AND PHOTOS. A colleague at work brings in sugar cane from his yard every month or so, and I've always wanted to know how to cut it without slicing up my hands. Thank you very much for taking the time.

  22. I found sugar cane at Superstore, and I just had to buy some to show my first graders. Thanks for the tips on how to prepare it. Love the story about your grandfather!

  23. Charity,
    You're the second teacher to tell me you used this guide to help prepare sugarcane for your students. Pretty cool!

  24. When is the best time of year to cute the sugarcane?
    Summer? Winter?

  25. Michelle,
    Whenever you want to eat it! I'm not sure if the sugars concentrate more at one time of the year versus another. It takes years for the stalks to get that big, so it's not like doing a fall harvest of certain crops before winter sets in. Sugarcane is planted in mild climates where it's grown year-round.


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