African culture is rich with traditions where food and drink play a key part in celebrations. Many traditional African drinks are also fermented – a process that not only adds another dimension of flavour but also extends the shelf life and has positive health benefits. In this article, we take a look at some of the most popular African fermented drinks, as well as their health benefits, how they’re made, and how you can try them at home. So read on to find out more…
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is the process by which sugars are broken down by bacteria, yeasts and/or other micro-organisms (commonly known as ‘friendly’ or desirable bacteria), leaving behind alcohol, acids, and carbon dioxide. Fermentation usually occurs in the absence of oxygen; it’s how wine and beer are made, soy sauce is made through a type of fermentation, and it’s the process that gives kimchi its signature flavour. Commonly fermented foods include dairy products like cheese and yoghurt, vegetables, fruits, grains, and miso. There are even some types of Asian fish sauce that are made through fermentation.
Palm wine is a naturally fermented beverage made from the sap of palm trees. The sap is harvested by making a small incision in the tree, allowing the sap to flow freely, and then collecting it when it has become concentrated. Palm sap is naturally rich in sugar and minerals and has a mildly sweet and earthy flavour. Palm wine is usually fermented for a couple of days, and the process is traditionally done in large clay jars. Traditionally, no additional yeast is added to the sap to speed up the fermentation process. The natural yeasts present in the sap are activated and kick-start the fermentation process.
Bida and odong kraeng
Bida is a naturally fermented rice wine made in Southeast Asia. The fermentation process converts the rice starch into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and the sweet and salty flavour is often described as ‘winey’. Bida is usually made from glutinous rice, salt, and water, and it’s usually served slightly sweet. Odong kraeng is a similar rice wine, served both as a beverage and a cooking ingredient in Southeast Asia. Like bida, odong kraeng is made from glutinous rice, water, and salt – but it’s also enriched with the flavour-giving properties of wood ash. The fermentation process not only adds flavour but also extends the shelf life of odong kraeng, and it’s often kept for years. Some people also use odong kraeng as a remedy for indigestion and stomach cramps.
Ogi is a fermented sourdough made from cassava root or yam flour. The naturally occurring yeast in cassava or yam flour ferments the dough, giving it a distinctive sour flavour. Ogi is traditionally eaten with ogbono soup in Nigeria, and it’s also used as a key ingredient in West African soups and stews. It’s also often eaten as a breakfast porridge or as a batter-fried fritter dish. Ogi is made by mixing the cassava or yam flour with water and letting the dough ferment for a day or two. It’s then steamed for several hours and allowed to cool before it’s ready to eat. Ogi has a high nutritional content due to the cassava or yam flour, and it’s also full of probiotics.
Kombucha is a fermented black tea drink. The fermentation process adds another dimension of flavour to the tea and also extends its shelf life. Kombucha is often associated with its health benefits, including improved immunity and digestive function, improved liver function and blood pressure, reduced joint pain, improved skin complexion, and reduced cellulite. Kombucha is made by adding a scoby culture (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) to sweetened black tea and letting the mixture ferment for a few weeks. It’s then bottled and ready to drink. Kombucha is full of good bacteria and can be sweetened with added fruit flavours.
Bune and kvass
Bune and kvass are two types of African fermented drinks made from rye bread. Bune is a fermented soda made with a mixture of water and buna (the term for bune in Cameroon). Bune is often described as tasting like champagne, due to its fizzy nature. Kvass is a fermented rye bread beverage that’s often made with added berries and spices. It’s commonly served as an accompaniment to a meal or as a snack in many parts of Africa. Kvass can also be sweetened and chilled, with added fruit or herbs, and served as a refreshing beverage during warmer weather. Both bune and kvass are naturally fermented and are full of probiotics, vitamins, and minerals. They’re usually made at home using stale bread, water, and sugar.
Fermented beers made from sorghum, millet, and maize are popular in many parts of Africa. They’re usually made in clay pots and left to ferment for a few days before being ready to drink. Many African beer varieties are low in alcohol, making them an ideal beverage for children and those trying to avoid alcohol. They’re usually served with meals but can also be enjoyed on their own. Fermented African beers are often made with the addition of herbs and spices, giving them a unique flavour. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, and they’re also free of gluten and cholesterol.
Mursik and masa mursi
Mursik is a traditional fermented Ethiopian cheese that’s often eaten with injera, a fermented Ethiopian flatbread. Mursik is usually made with cow’s or goat’s milk. The mixture is left to ferment for a few days and then wrapped in a cloth and left to ferment again. Masa mursi is another fermented Ethiopian cheese, made by adding miso paste and water to a mixture of Ethiopian cheese, ghee, and the peels of citrus fruits. Like mursik, masa mursi is usually eaten with injera, and it’s also commonly eaten with bread or added to salad. Both mursik and masa mursi are rich in probiotics and are often recommended for those on a vegan diet.
Fermented African drinks are rich in flavour and are a great way to get more probiotics into your diet. Many can be easily made at home, and they’re full of vitamins and minerals – making them a great snack or addition to a meal. These drinks are also an ideal option for those looking to avoid alcohol. While fermented drinks have received a lot of attention for their health benefits, they’re also a wonderful way to celebrate African culture and traditions.