Kenya has long been regarded as the breeding ground of Olympic champions in track and field. Lean, strong and fast, Kenyan runners are fierce competitors winning medals across the globe. But have you ever wondered what makes Kenyan athletes so special? The secret may be a little known indigenous drink called mursik.
Prepared and served out of a dried gourd, mursik is a fermented yogurt drink combined with ash from cromwo (Ozoroa insignis), a native tree known for its has antiseptic properties and faint scent of peanut butter. This unique dairy product is recognized for its nutritional value and prized by athletes, most of whom have been drinking it since childhood.
Much like the Indy 500 winners celebrate their triumph by drinking milk, Kenyan athletes are welcomed back home with ash yogurt. “It’s something they long for, it’s a taste of home, it’s the drink that many people believe makes the athletes so strong,” said Samson Kiiru, a native of Kenya currently enrolled in the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.
Kiiru introcuced us to this product during Slow Food Cheese festival recently held in Italy's Piedmont region. Tucked away in a small stall along a busy cobblestone street, Kiiru was helping serve mirsuk to curious observers.
It was hard not to want to taste this unsual drink - it's grayish hue and velvety texture seemed entincing on a hot afternoon. Trying not to think of the ash I was consuming, my mouth focused instead on the flavor. The yogurt was smooth, sharp and surprinsingly not bitter. It's the type of drink fans of plain yogurt and kefir would enjoy.
Mursik is traditionally prepared in a dried gourd that has been scrubbed with a burnt stick from the cromwo tree. This seals and disenfects the inside of the gourd and its lid in preparation for the milk. The yogurt can be made from cow or goat’s milk (one or the other, never mixed) which is heated then cooled and poured into the dried gourd. The milk is left to ferment for at least three days after which the whey is drained. The gourd is then shaken repeatedly to give the yogurt a smooth consistency. Afterwards, the ash is added as an antiseptic and flavor enhancer.
Although this legendary drink is popular amongst athletes, mursik faces the threat of extinction in villages where little milk is available. Thus, the Slow Food organization has stepped in to help locals preserve this tradition in West Pokot, a region near the Ugandan border. Through the Pokot Ash Yogurt presidium the organization helps villagers optimize the production of milk and its preservation.
The Pokot people have consumed mursik for centuries and, althouth there's no scientific explaination linking it to athletic performance, they believe it is a drink worth protecting. “It is a tradition they are proud of and they want it to continue, especially because it's their identity and they don’t want to lose it. They believe there is power in it when consumed from childhood to adulthood, thus helping many world athletic champions from this region to scoop medals and defend their world titles,” Kiiru said.