On our recent trip to the Samburu region of Kenya, the folks we met were incredibly gracious and hospitable. But perhaps what made us feel most at home were the goats.
The Samburus are pastoralists, which means they travel hundreds of miles with their goat, cattle (and sometimes camel) herds to wherever they can find water. Being nomadic, they keep very few personal belongings. In order for any household item to make the cut it needs to be, quite simply, invaluable.
Soon after our arrival, we noticed a woman rinsing out some sort of vessel. While we couldn’t understand the name, we did understand that she’d carved it from wood, and that it was used to keep goat milk fresh for four days or more.
Four days? We couldn’t believe it. The daytime temperatures are almost constantly above 85F. Usually in the mid-90s during mid-day. If we leave milk on the counter overnight at the farm it goes bad.
We asked a few other tribe members about it, and they confirmed that the vessel, either made from wood from a certain tree or a specific variety of gourd, could indeed keep the milk from souring. Which is very important considering that the Samburu’s entire diet consists of blood and milk…with the very occasional ceremonial goat meat roast.
Yes, you heard that right. Their traditional diet is only blood mixed with milk. No grains. No fruits. No vegetables. The only time they have anything plant-based is when they slaughter a goat for a special celebration. Afterwards they make a stew from the intestines, which contain some half-digested plant material.
How can they survive on simply blood and milk? Well it turns out that it’s a pretty balanced diet. The combination has all the vitamins and minerals necessary, in a very concentrated form. And when you’re nomadic, it’s not a good idea to carry around a ton of pots, pans, matches, spoons, firewood, etc anyway. It’s much simpler to make a small, harmless puncture in a goat’s (or cow’s) neck, collect some blood, patch the wound with a naturally antiseptic mudpack, and send the animal on its way. After milking it too, of course.
So yes, back to the milk.
How to keep milk usable in 90F heat? Obviously you need a sterilized vessel…which isn’t easy without soap and water. But extreme heat is nature’s ultimate sterilizer – even better when combined with certain natural antiseptic compounds.
We asked to watch how a tribeswoman sterilized the vessel, and were invited inside one of the small Manyattas. Our host showed us how she heated a large stick in the fire, until the tip was a glowing ember. Then she quickly dropped it into the vessel, which had a very small amount of water in it, capped it immediately, and shook it around. When she uncapped it, the smoke and steam poured out. She repeated this three times, and pronounced it ready for milk, handing it to a small boy, who’s job it would be to milk the goats. He whisked it out several times with a brush made from a cow’s tale. We presumed this was to get rid of any excess soot.
We were incredibly humbled that the people in the village where we were staying slaughtered a goat in honor of our visit. And yes, we did drink the blood from that goat. (Don’t tell any of our goats here.) But since you probably won’t ever have much occasion to make a goat blood/milk smoothie, there’s no need to share that recipe here.
However, some of the teachers at one of the schools we were visiting shared some milky tea made from the milk stored in the charred vessels. And it was simply amazing. There was a smokiness to the milk that made the spiced sweet tea incredibly complex. We set out to make it at home and found an awesome way to recreate the smoky flavor in your own home.
Here’s a step-by-step photo guide to how we make African Smoky Milk Tea at home. (Full recipe at bottom of post.)
Obviously…be very careful when doing anything involving an open flame. And it’s probably not a good idea to let small children make this themselves. Unless you have a ready escape route and good insurance.
First you’ll need a heavy-duty thermos with tight lid, as well as a 1-2 inch thick stick of wood (We used applewood, since we are certain that there are no toxic compounds. But research online for other non-toxic woods if applewood isn’t available to you.) It’s important that the stick can completely fit inside the thermos, and the lid can bed screwed on with it inside.
First, add about ½ cup of room temperature water to the thermos. Next, insert the stick into the hot embers of a fire.
Once about 3 inches of the stick are flaming and glowing, remove from the fire and immediately drop – lit end down – into the water in the thermos.
Cap it quick! Swirl the thermos around for about a minute.
Once you remove the cap, smoke and stem will escape. Don’t do this directly under a smoke alarm.
Using a fine wire sieve lined with either a coffee filter or paper towel, pour the “smoky” water into a heavy saucepan. The filter will trap bits of soot and burned wood.
Add another cup of water to the smoky water, along with the tea and spices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 4 minutes.
Add the milk and sugar, and bring to a simmer, just below boiling.
Once warm, strain through a fine wire sieve directly into mugs.
- 1 ½ cup water
- 2 bags of black tea (not herbal,) or 1 ½ tablespoons of loose black tea.
- 8 crushed cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick (or ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon)
- 6 whole cloves (or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves)
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 inch segment of fresh ginger, sliced thinly
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cup sugar or honey
- Prep Time: 15m
- Cook Time: 10m
- Total Time: 25m
Follow instructions above for making “smoky” water. Heat the water in a heavy saucepan with tea, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns & ginger. Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer over low heat for four minutes.
Add milk and sugar (or honey.) Bring back to simmer (not boil) while stirring over low heat.
Strain directly into mugs and serve immediately. (Strained mixture can also be chilled and served over ice.)