Sudan’s Mysterious, Almost-but-Not-Quite Liquor
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Not knowing the origin of your brew could land you in jail.
By Hana Baba
This Ramadan, Sudanese Muslims will fast all day from food and water. When the month is over, they’ll celebrate the Eid festival with festive gatherings featuring vibrant clothing, music, lots of food and sharbot — Sudan’s delicious almost-wine-but-not-quite beverage reserved for celebrating. “Almost wine,” because sharbot is a traditional fermented drink that walks a fine line between benign fizzy juice and alcoholic beverage. And in a Muslim-majority nation where alcohol is outlawed, that distinction can be the difference between having a great party and getting dragged to the local precinct.
Sudanese women brew cold pitchers of the sweet bubbly drink to gulp down after large meaty meals, which hits the spot in Sudan’s hot, dry climate. Adults claim it helps them with digestion. The recipe calls for dates, yeast and fragrant spices like ginger and galangal spice. The dates are boiled in water, then cooled and left out on the counter for a day — and this is the crucial, make-it-or-break-it stage. Sudanese grandma Asma Osman has been brewing sharbot for 40 years. “To be halal [Islamically legal], you have to leave it for two days at the most. Maybe three. But don’t let it go to day four,” she laughs. Because that’s when it starts smelling and tasting “funny” — meaning fermentation has reached the point of creating alcohol. And you’re well on your way to making date wine.
You need to determine yourself if that sharbot has indeed become wine.
Sharbot may be commonly consumed, but it’s still somewhat controversial. Every Eid season, imams find themselves tackling the question of its halal-ness. People ask: Am I a bad Muslim if I drink sharbot? The answer is almost always: “If it can make you drunk, stay away from it.” You need to determine yourself if that sharbot has indeed become wine. So knowing who brewed your batch is important. Otherwise, you’re teetering on the edge of uncertainty — a space many Sudanese want to avoid, yet others seem to playfully enjoy.
Those who brew it and drink it regularly, even outside of special celebrations, play a naughty game of risk, tasting and then taunting each other: How many days did you leave yours out? Ooh, yours is dangerous! I’m calling the cops! As a child, I recall going to special occasions and witnessing the grownups take sips and pretend to stagger around, burping and laughing. I always wondered if they were really pretending. And if it is totally legit, why are the kids not allowed to have any?
Sudanese in the West have compared sharbot’s controversy to that of kombucha, the popular fermented tea that’s being challenged in the U.S. as an alcoholic drink. Kombucha vendors also are struggling to make a market for themselves in the Muslim world. In the booming United Arab Emirates, the Dubai government is testing batches of kombucha with home brewers to determine whether it would be allowed on grocery store shelves. Meanwhile, religious authorities in the UAE are sending conflicting messages about the legality of the fermented drink.
So, what does Sudanese sharbot taste like? To me, it’s a delicious, intense concentration of fruity sweetness with a bit of fizz. Like a ginger-date soda. I like mine to be a one-day sharbot, on ice, with lots of ginger — like my aunt makes it. Delicious.
Here’s the recipe. As for how many days you leave it out — let’s just keep that between you and your brew.
Make some: SHARBOT
- 2 kg (4 1/2 lbs) dates
- 1 teaspoon dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon ground galangal
- 4 liters (1 gallon) water
Wash the dates well. Boil them in water for about 20 minutes. Let the dates cool, then strain the mixture through a breathable cotton cloth, so you have only liquid left. Then add the spices, which should be only coarsely ground, not too fine. Add yeast and pour the mixture into a sealed glass container. Let sit out at room temperature for 24 hours. Enjoy!
- Hana Baba, OZY Author Contact Hana Baba