by Victoria Alcalá
Although philologists can’t agree (no surprise there!) about the origin of the word guarapo, and the drink called by that name has been adjudicated diverse origins going from Africa to ancient Rome and passing through the Canary Islands, most Cubans are convinced this is a typical product of the Island.
Nevertheless, to the amazement of younger Cubans, Esteban Pichardo in
the mid-19th century recorded the word guarapo in his “Diccionario
provincial de voces y frases cubanas” as originating in the indigenous
language and he defined it as a broth or liquid made from sugarcane
juice, extracted under pressure. Both the word and the process are
still around today after almost two centuries.
We continue to drink guarapo in Cuba and the method of extracting it from freshly-cut sugarcane has not changed. Of course the 20th century added chipped ice at a time when there were an abundance of little stalls that would sell a glass of sugarcane juice for just a few pennies. The low price and the high calorie content made it popular among the low-earners in the population. Its power to refresh, especially with the addition of some drops of lemon juice, and its pleasant taste have kept it at the top of the list of drinks preferred by Cubans, no matter what their social origins are.
Even though it did not totally disappear during the second half of the 20th century and there were even some famous guarapo stands all over Cuba, such as the one close to the baseball stadium in Santa Clara, places selling the drink became rather scarce until the boom in small private businesses brought it back out onto the streets, especially around the agro-markets and some organic garden. It’s there that we have resuscitated the sound of the trapiche or sugarcane press, the incredible smell of crushed sugarcane and the cries of protest of customers whenever they get too much ice and too little guarapo in their glasses.
Perhaps the only defect this sugarcane nectar possesses is that it cannot be conserved for a very long time, and that means minutes. The sugarcane juice has to be drunk practically instantly because it tends to ferment rather quickly. It does get consumed in some places in Mexico and Colombia in its fermented state because of the alcoholic content acquired, but in Cuba nobody dreams of drinking it under such conditions. It has to come straight out of the trapiche.
Forbidden to diabetics, restricted for those that need to lose a few pounds, guarapo nonetheless provides the necessary calories to fuel walking and similar physical exercise. Not to mention that it is a really tasty drink and just the perfect refresher in our sweltering tropical heat. And if you want to make it more exciting, just add rum!
Guarapera Aguada de Pasajeros
Sugar cane Guarapo in Cuba
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