At a friendly neighborhood teachers’ meeting of meat pies and “colddrinks” last week, Mr. Kabutey’s secretary, my friend Dormenyo, went around asking everybody if they wanted a Mineral or a Sobulu. Curious, I thought. While I knew that “Mineral” meant a glass-bottled international soda, typically CocaCola, Sprite or Fanta. “Sobolu,” however, was something I shockingly, had never heard of, much less tasted.
The ensuing burgundy red, chilli pepper and ginger spicy icy goodness was so immensely pleasurable that I have since undertaken a lowkey quest to demystify its production process.
Sobolu is a locally made Ghanaian “colddrink,” roughly translating to “soda,” which, although non-carbonated, is not a “drink,” persay, because it is non-alcoholic. The recipe varies, and the specifics of it are a mixture of urban legend, Taussig’s “public secret” (are you surprised that I tried to casually sneak an arcane anthropology reference in there?), and post-church market gossip.
Naturally, I gravitated towards plumbing the collective wisdom of the third option, which was particularly suitable because, with Christmas, I’ve been to church about five times in the last week.
Here’s the basic recipe:
For about fifteen minutes, or longer if you want the flavor to be more intense, you boil water with three main things in it: whole peppercorns, a thick paste of mashed fresh ginger, and a dried, red Ghanaian treeleaf that you probably can’t find and no one knows the name for, even in Twi. They just call them “Sobolu leaves” (I’ve asked at least a dozen sobolu makers this question.) I’ve also had sobolu that had definitely included a cinnamon stick at this stage, but I found the addition to detract slightly from the purer form.
I did my research, however, and went to the Tema market to touch and smell these leaves. It’s possible they are rosehip, I’m not sure. (Everyone seems pretty convinced they come from trees; does rosehip come from a tropical tree?). Fortunately, consensus opinion states that the leaves are mostly important for contributing the dark red color of the liquid, and provide an essential, yet relatively slight, flavor.
After boiling, you strain out the ginger, leaves and peppercorn, and mix in enough sugar for the burning, peppery ginger taste to become delicious rather than exclusively painful for your tonsils. Chill and drink. Very good semi-frozen.
In true Ghanaian fashion, as I was going through security at Accra airport, the woman operating the machine was drinking Sobolu. This excited me, because I had thought there was no home of getting such an unregulated liquid inside of security. Wrong. Upon asking her where she got it, the woman was taken aback for a good 90 seconds at the fact that I even knew what Sobolu was and had recognized the reddish-purple fluid in the quintessential unmarked plastic bottle with yellow cap.
As it happens, one of the other security guard women at the entrance to the gates was selling Sobolu she’d made to the other airport employees out of a cooler hidden beneath the bag-scanning machine. She glady sold me three at twice the usual price – one cedi, rather than 50 pesuas, per bottle – but when I remarked upon this she told me it was to cover her legal fees if she got caught selling inside of the security barrier. Fair enough, I thought, and toasted to the unique good humor of Ghanaians, the only people I know easy-going enough to appropriately bend airport security rules for cultural reasons, while godly enough to only ever bootleg a non-alcoholic moonshine.