Banana juice … is that even a thing?

Turns out the answer is yes, at least in Rwanda. In Rwanda, banana anything is a thing.

I was curious about banana juice and banana beer. Banana beer (called urwagwa) is the most common alcoholic drink in Rwanda because it’s cheap and can be made at home. Almost everybody farms bananas so the materials are always easy to gather. My friend’s family are included in that “everybody” so we went to his parents’ house so that I could satisfy my curiosity about how to make banana drinks.

The first step was done before I got there. His family picked some bananas (about 20 of them) and placed them on a 3-foot high bamboo rack which they then placed above the fire. They roasted the bananas (with the skins on) and let them sit for several days so that they would be very soft.

When the bananas were ready, they gathered the other materials. You need dried banana leaves, a bucket, some water, lots of manpower and a local weed called “monkey skin.” They told me it’s called monkey skin because it’s smooth but then shouldn’t it be called “human skin”?

Anyway, the first step was simply to peel the bananas and drop them into the bucket. Then, you add in some monkey skin and dry banana leaves. The next part is where it gets a little tricky. You have to mix the grasses into the bananas in order to release the juices. It’s called “kwenga” in Kinyarwanda and takes a lot of strength! It looks like kneading — you mix everything together and then separate it a little, then mix it all together again. You keep doing this, squeezing as hard as you can, until foamy juice comes out of the bananas and collects at the bottom of the bucket.

When you think all of the juice is out you use the monkey skin grass like a sieve. You scoop up handfuls of it and squeeze it so that the juice comes out but the solid bits of banana are caught up in the grass and removed. After you get rid of the solid bits you’re left with banana juice!

At that point, you cook it (just bring it to a boil and then let it cool) and put it in a bottle and it’s ready to use. But, if you don’t cook it and instead you add some sorghum or millet and let it sit for 2-3 days, you end up with banana beer!

I really liked watching the banana juice being made. It’s cool to see how simple a process is needed to make juice and even beer. The bucket was the only artificial thing we used but in traditional Rwanda they used a carved wooden trough instead so the whole process can be done using only traditional materials, if you want.

My banana juice is sitting in my neighbor’s fridge at the moment, waiting for a ride in my suitcase to America. I’m interested to see how American palates take to this Rwandan staple!


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