September 22, 2023


Red Hot Food

Ghana Life: Non-Alcoholic Beverages

Ghanaians drink large amounts of water, often requesting water before, or in preference to, many other beverages. This is perhaps due not only from living in a hot and humid climate but also from surviving long periods in the past when few, if any, alternatives were available. To the casual observer it might seem that historically Ghanaians, in common with many other communities, put much more effort into devising alcoholic beverages than satisfying a need for softer drinks. Was there any need to do anything more to an orange or a mango than slice off some skin and squeeze the juice straight into the mouth?

Oranges are plentiful in Ghana, sold from market stalls and from large round trays on the heads of itinerant women traders. They are available in every market and on the wayside of every major trunk road. Conveniently sliced by the seller, most local consumers tear off the almost severed cap, suck out the juice and throw away the shrunken corpse. Curiously, the supply seems to be maintained all year round, and at the INDUTECH fair in Accra in 1992, the University of Ghana demonstrated how this was achieved by careful selection of a number of species fruiting at different times of the year. With such pleasant beverages on demand straight from the tree, it is not surprising that little thought was applied to intermediate stages of processing.

Europeans like to eat mangoes when they are not yet ripe and the flesh can be sliced and served as a desert. Ghanaians, however, treat mangoes much as oranges; taking the well ripened fruit with inedible fibrous flesh and sucking out the juice. Unlike oranges, mangoes are only available for about one month in the year, in Kumasi in May, and so there might have been an incentive for attempting to preserve the juice.

In modern times there have been many attempts to produced preserved fruit juices supplied in bottles and cans. These have ranged from a large state-owned cannery established in the time of Kwame Nkrumah (1951-1966), through large private firms such as Nkulenu Industries to one-person enterprises using recycled bottles. These producers have included the full range of locally available fruit juices, including orange, lemon and grapefruit, pineapple, mango, guava, passion fruit and coconut. On the whole, the larger efforts have focussed on exporting and local take-up has been modest.

One might suspect that before the days of air-conditioning there were few opportunities for taking hot drinks in Ghana, but the tropical climate does occasionally provide a cool evening or a relatively cold morning. Since the introduction of cocoa in the 1890s, hot chocolate beverages have found their way to comforting the shivering student through his homework and fortifying the farmer to face the rigours of the dawn trek to the farm.

Other warm drinks have been discovered to have medicinal properties. These have been produced from the water used in boiling kenke, a fermented corn dough, and pineapple peel. Both these potions are claimed to be efficacious in the treatment of jaundice. Speaking from first-hand experience, the author can state that having been administered both medicines, in the absence of any treatment other than a glucose drip, the eventual recovery must be attributed to their effectiveness.

Inevitably in the modern world, the market in Ghana is now dominated by the products of universally-known multinational soft drinks manufacturers. In the past, these have tended to come and go with the state of the economy, but in the present century their supply has stabilised. In restaurants in towns they have become the standard non-alcoholic beverages of the new middle class. But on the road, the weary traveller still reaches from the car window for a plastic bag of water and beckons to the orange seller to slice two of her fresh fruits.