James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Missing a Cocktail Ingredient? Vodka Will Do Just Fine

Missing a Cocktail Ingredient? Vodka Will Do Just Fine

Dawas in Lamu, Kenya

The afternoon sun is beating down as I duck into the shade of a seafront restaurant, Hapa Hapa, on one of Lamu Island’s two “streets”.

I’m here to meet Ali Abdalla Skanda, a woodworker and local celebrity who comes from a storied lineage of dhow (traditional Swahili sailing boat) builders from the archipelago. The family’s most famous dhow sits proudly in the halls of the Smithsonian, and his current project is to build a dhow exclusively from recycled ocean plastics and to sail it from Zanzibar to Cape Town.

I speak with Ali about his many years of dhow building and racing and he tells me how Lamu has changed in some ways, but has mostly resisted the march of time. As the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Kenya, and one of the oldest along the East African coast, Lamu has always held immense cultural value to the Swahili people.

There are only two cars on the island (an ambulance, and the governor’s vehicle), and the main means of transportation are donkey, foot, or boat. Carbon fiber and wooden speed boats have grown in popularity, but the traditional dhow remains the vessel of choice.

While Ali no longer races, he rarely misses a competition. “I don’t really care about speed anymore. its all about technique. Who is balancing the boat well, how is the team working together, how they tack into the wind; it’s beautiful.”

As we settle in to watch watch the dhows go by, I spot the bar and a glistening row of Dawas, Kenya’s quintessential cocktail, being whipped up by the dozen. It’s a sweet and refreshing cocktail piled high with ice, marked by its distinctive muddling stick.

An easy cocktail reminiscent of mojitos and caipirinhas, it starts with a heaped teaspoon of white sugar in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass, and the juice of half a lime. Cut the other half of the lime into wedges, toss them in, and fill the glass to the brim with the biggest ice cubes you’ve got. Pull out the honey jar, and roll the end of a thick wooden stick (or ideally, a honey dipper) until you’ve got a good glob on the end. Place it in the glass, wait until the honey cools onto the stick/ice and then add the liquor.

For a patriotic flourish, use Kenya Cane (sugar cane spirit), but for those of you unlucky enough to be far from the Swahili coast, vodka will do just fine.

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