Wonder drink

Tricia Wanjala is interested to discover that the secret beverage of Kenyan champions is enjoyed in many forms across the world

WonderdrinkEach time Kenyan runners return from an international race crowds throng to the airport. They cheer, sing and place garlands around their necks. The relatives open a tightly sealed classic gourd and present it to the returning heroes to drink. The gourd contains a special traditional beverage, called mursik. It is also known as kule naoto by the Maasai community.

Several other tribes throughout the continent drink a remarkably similar preparation. The Xhosa of South Africa call it amasa, or maas in Afrikaans. All of these are different versions of the same thing – fermented raw milk. I was intrigued to discover that this treasured beverage is found not only in Africa, but in different regions around the globe.

Kefir is a similarly potent fermented milk drink widely consumed in Eastern Europe. It was discovered centuries ago among Muslim communities in the Caucasus Mountains near Russia. It is made by inoculating milk with kefir grains in skin bags hung near a doorway. Unlike mursik or maas, which are thick and creamy, kefir is effervescent and light. Modern kefir is made using the same grains, but individuals who are lactose intolerant use a variety of nut or soy milks to make it. Kefir is widely researched and is recognised as a healing food due to its large arsenal of nutrients. In fact in 1973 The Soviet Ministry of Health formally recognised 85-year-old Irina Sakharova for bringing kefir to the Russian people. It had previously been a closely guarded secret and grains were passed on as a family inheritance, never given to strangers. The young Irina used her alluring beauty to beguile a Caucasus prince into giving away some of the grains.

Make your own kefir with grains from a friendly neighbour or buy from an online outlet. These beverages are potent, so introduce them slowly into your diet, starting with small servings.

Interestingly, amasa, mursik’s southern cousin, was always given to visitors, even strangers, immediately upon arrival. These drinks contain beneficial yeast and bacteria which colonize the intestinal tract and eliminate any harmful bacteria there. This reportedly protects the traveller from germs unique to the area of arrival, and also prevents him from spreading any foreign germs.

Many people of African descent complain of lactose intolerance. Interestingly, traditional fermented milk beverages are often well tolerated among such cases. This is because the enzymes produced during fermentation break down much of the lactose.

Why so beneficial? A thesis study by Richard Mokua of the University of Wisconsin revealed that amasa cultures are powerful enough to kill bacteria such as the notorious E.Coli which is responsible for most cases of food poisoning in the West. It also contains beneficial bacteria for digestive health. Since the immune system is heavily reliant on the gut, this study helped corroborate Mokua’s observation that children raised on mursik rarely suffered from diarrhoea and other common ailments.

I sampled mursik while researching this article – it is a light grey colour due to the ash content. It has a smooth consistency and it tastes like plain, thick yoghurt. Nomadic tribes in Sudan, Ethiopia, Northern Kenya and Somalia make it from camel milk, thus preserving the milk in lieu of refrigeration. Many cultures smoke the gourd to disinfect it, and apparently this infusion of ash from acacia or senna bark adds to the potency of the milk.

Benefits of fermented unpasteurised milk
• Lowers cholesterol
• Rich in vitamin A, B2, B12, D, K, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Tryptophan
• Contains Omega-3 Fatty acids, EPA & DHA, CLA, B12, Zinc, Iron, Creatine and
• High in gut-healing probiotics (at least 1 billion per mm3)