At first you taste a field of lush wet grass, then sweetness creeps in and lingers. It is neither rich nor plain. It is not colorful or sparkling. It has no charm in a 16-oz styrofoam cup. You will never be its addict. It relieves thirst better than coke, and contains nothing but natural hymn. It is the girl-next-door drink.
Where I’m from, nuoc mia carts usually park in front of school gates. They have a bucket of yard-long sugarcane stalks, some ready-to-go nylon bags filled with the yellow tinged juice, tied with a rubber band and equipped with a straw, a glass box to store the inch cuts of decorticated sugarcane – cheap, all-natural energy snack for school kids. The sugarcane ladies, usually in cone hats with their faces charred by sunlight and sidewalk heat, can reel sugarcane stalks through the grinding wheels so fast and so rhythmically, like a skilled tailor drawing cloth through a sewing machine. I used to marvel those ladies and their cool sweet drink, from a distance, as my mother doesn’t believe in street food. I may recall one or two instances of drinking sugarcane juice over the years, some vague memory of how wonderful the taste was after you added a teeny pinch of salt. There were times my mom would buy whole sugarcanes from the market and peel off the outer shell with one heck of a mean-looking sharp knife, then cut them into bite-sized chunks that I could chew and suck. The juice was heavenly. Its memory just wouldn’t let me rest.
Around lunch time we arrive at CD Bakery. As soon as I ask the cashier lady for one “nước mía”, she yells out the order to the juice man, who starts sticking and pulling sugarcane stalks into the grinding wheels boxed up with metal walls.
After running the stalks a couple of times through, the juice man reaches into the tin box to grab a plastic jug filled with lightly foaming juice, pours it into a styrofoam cup with a few ice cubes, closes the lid and dunks a straw. Three-dollar-and-three-minute soft drink. The only way to beat this minimal procedure would be to lick maple sap from a living tree, or chew on some sweet grass. The cashier lady asks if I want kumquat (salted, perhaps?) in my nuoc mia too, but after a split second of thought I go with No. Sugarcane juice can make it on its own. That is its beauty, and it deserves my trust. How would the aged, salty, bitter, sour kumquat tantalization fuse with the tingling, deeply soothing, freshly pressed, sweet sugarcane nectar?
I’ll try it next time.
Address: CD Bakery & Deli (also called Dao Bakery & Deli LLC)
(in the Lion Market Plaza on Tully & King)
1816 Tully Road, Store #198
San Jose, CA 95122
Open everyday from 8am to 8pm