With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, an introduction to ginjan, a super refreshing West African ginger drink—and the two brothers who are bringing it to New York City and beyond.
Note: This story was originally posted before the COVID-19 crisis, but you can currently visit the cafe in Harlem again, or order online.
With the boom of artisanal beverage products, from Recess to kombucha, cold-brew coffees, and matcha tea, when I heard about Ginjan, I was intrigued to learn more about it. The Ginjan Bros, Rahim and Mohammed Diallo, were kind enough to invite me up to their café in East Harlem to have a taste of the ginger beverage now sold in 40 Whole Foods across New York City. It’s also available for purchase on their site.
The café itself was transportive, which I learned from Rahim is its intention. A collaborative effort between the brothers, a designer, and a New York based furniture artisan, the wallpaper, lighting, and décor is supposed to allude to their African childhood.
Rahim was kind enough to let me into his world, and show me the flavors he grew up tasting and wants the rest of the world to know about.
Chowhound: So, what is Ginjan?
Rahim Diallo: Ginjan is cold-pressed ginger juice, with pineapple, lemon, vanilla, anise, and sugar mixed in. It’s medicinal: Ginger energizes you, helps with the immune system, can help pregnant women with nausea, but it tastes so good that people drink it every day in West Africa.
Is it served hot or cold?
RD: Normally it’s served cold, over ice. It’s hot in Africa and ginjan is refreshing. But people can come into the Ginjan Café on a cold day like today, and have a warm shot of it too, like espresso. It warms you from head to toe.
That sounds amazing. So how do you make it?
RD: We have a facility about 10 blocks from the café where Mohammed and I make all of it with the help of two people. We juice the ginger, add the rest of the ingredients, and we fill the bottles manually. Then we use a high-pressure processor to pasteurize it in the bottle. It remains cold throughout the process so it’s fresher for longer.
Tell me about how you started making Ginjan. The Ginjan origin story.
RD: We started making Ginjan because the first thing you miss when you’re homesick is the food of your culture. Mohammed and I grew up drinking ginjan in Guinea every day. It’s kind of like the sweet tea of the South before Minute Maid. Everyone has their own version that they make in their home that’s slightly different. You invite someone over and offer them a glass of ginjan. We couldn’t find a consistent ginjan product in the states, or any African product on the shelves, so we decided to make our own.
And I noticed at the café you use a La Colombe African [coffee] blend.
RD: Exactly. All of the flavors we serve in the Ginjan Café are African. We’ve had people come in and say they didn’t know there was African coffee. But coffee originated in Ethiopia. Same thing with chocolate. That started in Central America, but 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans come from West African countries. Still, we don’t associate that flavor with Africa. Instead, it’s Swiss or Belgian. Our mission with Ginjan, and the café, is to create a brand around African flavors so they can enter the global mainstream.
But ginger comes from Asia, right?
RD: Sure, but potatoes originate in Peru. If you think about a French fry, what country do you associate that with? America. But they were first made in Belgium, really. Same with soy sauce. Soy comes from Asia, but what country pops into your head when you think of soy sauce?
Immediately? I think of Chinese Food.
RD: Right. And that speaks to how you were introduced to soy sauce. If you had grown up only eating soy sauce with sushi, then you’d say you associate soy sauce with Japan. The bottom line is, America has done a really great job of marketing itself to the rest of the world. Our goal is to take traditional, everyday African flavors and popularize them globally. We want to create something delicious that people can associate to Africa. Because we recognize most Americans associate a lot of negative things with Africa.
Are there other flavors you’re working on introducing?
RD: There are so many. We are cooking with African flavors in the cafes, to make things like Joloff Rice to put on our menu. There’s also Atai, which is green tea with Moroccan mint. And here is Bisap, which is hibiscus, with cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. There’s a sweetened version and an unsweetened version.
It kind of tastes like pomegranate juice. It’d be good in a cocktail.
RD: Same with Ginjan. It’ll make the best Moscow mule you’ve ever had.
So why start with Ginjan?
RD: Ginger is familiar. But at the same time, you’ve never had it in a refreshing way like this before. There’s a low barrier to entry, and people won’t be afraid to try it. And that’s the hardest thing: getting people to try it. That’s why we’re planning to open up more Ginjan Cafés in metropolitan areas like D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, so we can grow at scale.
Ginjan Subscription, $27+
If you can't yet find it locally, you can order online—and even set up a subscription if you just can't get enough.
Header image courtesy of Ginjan Bros, Inc.