The Ancient Art of Making Gurrha – By Zeejah

The Ancient Art of Making Gurrha/Gurr – By Zeejah

Ready to eat!

Winter is the time for gurrha. As a child I remember it was always served after meals. My grandfather used to say it made the breath sweeter after eating radishes and onions; it also satisfied his forbidden sweet tooth, but that was another matter.

An all-time family favourite has always been shrheenza, a halva (a dessert) made of gurrha, wheat flour, home-made butter and lots of aniseed. To keep us indoors on rainy days, my grandmother kept us occupied with taffy pulling competitions for which gurrha was cooked with a generous dollop of butter. Pulling the lumps of goo, we often forgot to eat it in our grim efforts of making it whiter than the others!

Villagers still use gurrha in their tea, in place of sugar; they say it has a warming effect in winter. The season for gurrha-making lasts from November to January, as frostbitten cane results in gurrha that is slightly sour to the taste. When I was a child, one day was always set apart to visit the garhain (where gurrha is made) on my grandfather’s lands. Times have changed, and now there is no private garhain for me to visit. Yet, carrying on the tradition, each year I collect my grandchildren and we go searching for the tell-tale smoke, the crushed sugarcane set out to dry, and the swarms of village urchins hanging around the smoke-blackened hut of the garhain.

On one such foray in search of fresh gurrha, I was confronted with an unusual and amusing sight. There was a portable TV in the garhain, and a young man was watching a cricket match while forming the balls of gurrha. This was as sure a sign of the changing times as any I have ever seen, a true melding of the old and the new.

For the uninitiated, gurrha is made from sugarcane juice. The main types of sugarcane are the tottay and mundaan. Totay are freshly planted sugarcane, and Mundaan are planted from pieces of the original cane; the crop being renewed every three to four years. Gurrha is made from the mundaan variety as it is more juicy than from fresh crop of totay.

Basically, gurrha is brown sugar formed into little balls while it is still warm. When I was a child a pair of blindfolded oxen were used to crush the cane. Now, although oxen are still used to extract the juice in some garhain, machines are fast taking their place. Yet, in many ways things have not really changed. A garhain is still a one-room `factory’, and the crushed cane is still the only fuel used to cook the cane juice. With nothing wasted and nothing is added, it is a self-contained process.

Deciding to find out more details about the gurrha-making process, I asked a friend for help, and Abid discovered a garhain in Sherpao village that we could go to. One bright morning, (garhain do not word on rainy days), we set off with two of my grandchildren in tow. When we finally arrived, the oxen were earning a well-deserved rest,having been working since dawn. The garhain owner was kind enough to yoke them to the crusher for me to photograph.

We were told that a pipe carries the juice into the garhain where it is strained and collected in a large wooden container called a sandook. The owner told us that a sandook generally holds about 432 liters juice, which makes almost 85 kg of gurrha. Below the sandook is a karahi or large iron wok, in which the juice is cooked. During cooking, the scum that collects on the surface is skimmed off with a large strainer or chaan.

When the juice begins to thicken it is stirred with a gonrhan (a wedge-headed wooden pole), to keep it from sticking to the base of the karhai. When we got there, the juice had already been cooking for about four or five hours. It was now thick enough and ready for the final process. Since the lighter the colour of gurrha the better is its quality, some farmers add what they call rangkat at this stage. Naturally no one there knew rangkat’s chemical name.

This treacly, semi-solid gurrha is poured into the atra (earthen pans) with a samsa, or spoon-shaped utensil. Some farmers spray it with a little water at this stage. After about five minutes, a specially shaped trowel or rambai is run through the mixture for about half an hour, to help it cool and solidify evenly. As a delicacy, dried fruit may be added to the mixture at this time, this is called masaladar gurrha. A few black pepper corns are the only additives needed to keep it fresh. This is also the moment the village children have been waiting for.

Dipping sugarcane into the treacle-like gurrha, twirling it around until the mixture clings to the cane, and hey presto, it makes an indigenous lollipop called cheerh-gurrha and you have the largest lollipop any kid could hope for. When my grandchildren were offered cheerh-gurrha, they eyed it suspiciously. Once they had been coaxed into trying it, they wanted more.

The cooled gurrha mixture is piled around the atra. Now everyone joins in to form it into little balls or chakkai. Although gurrha in every form is a treat, fresh, warm gurrha is something else again!

In keeping with the legendary hospitality of the pathans, the farmers were very generous. They refuse to allow any one to leave their garhain empty handed, and offers of payment are taken as an insult. So Basma, Haroun, Abid and I came home after a lovely day at the garhain with lots of fresh gurrha and an armload of sugarcane, for the rest of the family.

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