Winter is the time for gurha. 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 made of gurha, wheat flour, homemade butter and lots of aniseed. To keep us indoors on rainy days, my grandmother kept us occupied with taffy pulling competitions for which gurha 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!

Villagers here still use gurha in place of sugar; they say it has a warming effect in winter. The season for gurha-making lasts from November to January, before the frost. Gurha made of frostbitten is slightly sour to the taste. When I was a child, one day was always set apart to visit the garhai'n (where gurha is made) on my grandfather's lands. Times have changed, and now there is no private garhai'n 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 garhai'n.

Recently, on one such foray in search of fresh gurha, I was confronted with an unusual and amusing sight. There was a portable TV in the garhai'n, and a young man was watching a cricket match while forming the balls of gurha. 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. While telling someone on the 'Net about my trip, I was surprised to discover that my cyber-friend had never tasted gurha. Needless to say, I rectified this void in his education by sending him some!

For the uninitiated, gurha is made from sugarcane juice. The main types of sugarcane are the TOTAY and MUNDA'AN. Totay are freshly planted sugarcane, and Munda'an are planted from pieces of the original cane; the crop being renewed every three to four years. Gurha is made from the munda'an variety as it is juicier than the fresh crop from totay.

Basically, gurha is brown sugar formed into little balls while it is still warm. When I was a child, a pair of blindfolded oxen crushed the cane. Now, although oxen are still used to extract the juice in some garhai'n, machines are fast taking their place. Yet, in many ways things have not really changed. A garhai'n 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.

This year I decided to find out more details about the gurha making process, and Abid discovered a garhai'n in Sherpao that we could go to. So one bright morning, (garhai'n do not function 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 garhai'n owner was kind enough to yoke them to the crusher so I could photograph them.

We were told that a pipe carries the juice into the garhai'n where it is strained and collected in a large wooden container called a SANDOOK. A sandook generally holds about 432 liters juice, which makes almost 85 kg of gurha. 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 CHA'AN. When the juice begins to thicken it is stirred with a GO'NRHA'N, (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 gurha, the better 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 gurha 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 so that it solidifies evenly. As a delicacy, nuts and dried fruit may be added to the mixture at this time, this is called `masaladar' gurha. 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, their share of fun. Dipping sugarcane into the treacle-like gurha, they twirl it around until the mixture clings to the cane, and hey presto, you have an indigenous lollipop called CHEERH GURHA! the largest lollipop any kid could hope for. When my grandchildren were offered cheerh gurha, they eyed it suspiciously. Once they had been coaxed into trying it, they wanted more.

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

In keeping with the legendary hospitality of the pathans, the farmers are very generous. They refuse to allow any one to leave their garhai'n 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 garhai'n with lots of fresh gurha and an armload of sugarcane, for the rest of the family.


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