Cocktail of the Month: Just What The Doctor Ordered

An African safari holds a place on many travelers’ bucket lists. It’s a dream trip of a lifetime to an intrepid world of exotic animals and adventure. My first safari trip to Kenya did not disappoint. On the first day in Masai Mara, we spotted a cheetah darting across the savannah at lightning speed and taking down a gazelle. Later we spied the stealthy cat hungrily chowing on its meaty feast.

On my last weekend in Nairobi, I had my own version of a predator banquet. On the outskirts of the city near the rolling hills sits Carnivore restaurant, a smorgasbord of meat that could feed several prides of famished lions. At the center of the open-air restaurant is an outlandish barbecue pit filled with massive spits of various animal meats, including some of the creatures I had photographed in the game parks the previous two weeks. Waiters dressed in zebra-print aprons roam around the boisterous chophouse cutting off chunks of meat directly on your plate with Masai swords. It’s not a place for the timid or those looking for a light meal – it’s a venue where your carnal desires can roam freely.

Unlike the cheetah I scouted, I didn’t have to hunt and kill my dinner and I was able to wash it down with one of Africa’s most famous cocktails – the Dawa – which was invented at Carnivore in the 1980’s. This mixture of honey, lime, white sugar, ice, and vodka is served with a unique accessory, a stout Dawa stick which is used to add honey and stir the drink.

Both the Dawa and Carnivore have roots in Brazil. The founder of the restaurant, Martin Dunford, traveled Brazil where he dined at a Churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue) which he combined with Swahili tradition of grilled meats to create Carnivore. He also imbibed on caipirinhas, the country’s national cocktail, during his travels. He thought the tipple’s lime flavor would complement the meaty meals he planned for his restaurant.

Mixologist Sam Kivelenge aka Dr. Dawa, who worked at Carnivore for decades, is credited with dreaming up this Kenyan concoction. Caipirinhas are forged from Cachaça, a local Brazilian spirit, that wasn’t widely exported at that time so vodka was substituted. The addition of honey gives the drink some Kenyan credibility, since the country has a long history of beekeeping.

They key to making an exceptional dawa is the stick, which is dipped and rolled in honey then used to muddle the limes and sugar together. Like a miniature magic wand, this mixer releases the honey into the limes as they are crushed imparting a mellow tang. Wooden dawa sticks have become a popular souvenir from Kenya, with some featuring native carvings and others Masai beadwork.

The name “dawa” means “medicine” in Swahili. While there’s no proof that drinking one has any health benefits, this drink is certainly strong enough to cure what ails you. And honey is a natural antibiotic.

The cocktail’s popularity soon stretched beyond the restaurant, throughout Kenya and later the continent. It’s a popular sundowner drink at game lodges for tourists after a day of game watching. Throughout the years I’ve sipped on them in the Serengeti and Swakopmund. And in Lake Nakuru and the Okavango Delta.

With February being Black History Month, it’s an ideal excuse to make some of your own Swahili medicine at home. If you don’t have a dawa stick you can use a honey dipper or spoon.

The Dawa

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar 1 whole lime, quartered,
  • Crushed ice 2 tablespoons of honey

Place limes and brown sugar into an old fashioned glass. Crush limes slightly, add ice and vodka. Twist a dawa stick in the honey. Roll it around until it’s coated and add the stick to the drink. Muddle limes with the dawa stick. Use the dawa stick to stir the drink. The more you stir, the more honey gets infused into your drink allowing you to regulate its sweetness.


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