The Spirited Traveller: Dawa, Nairobi's "medicinal" cocktail

( - “Dawa” means “medicine” in Swahili, as in “I need dawa for my headache.” It is also the name of a refreshing cocktail found in Nairobi - and on a hot afternoon, it sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

"Dawa", a Kenyan cocktail popularised by Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, is shown in this undated publicity image. REUTERS/Duncan Willetts/Handout

The drink is a mix of vodka, lime juice, honey, and a little sparkling water, often with sugar around the rim of the glass.

“It comes with a stick so you can stir the honey from the bottom - a ‘dawa stick’,” explains Beth O’Donnell, an American photographer and artist who also leads safaris in East Africa where she lives several months of the year.

In addition to a cold Tusker Beer, with the iconic African elephant on the label, the Dawa is the drink to request, especially at one of the local hotel bars.

“If I’m in Nairobi and I’m at a bar, I order a Dawa and they’ll know what I’m talking about,” O’Donnell says.

Failing that, opt for a classic Gin & Tonic - during the British colonial days, the quinine in tonic water was purported to help ward off malaria.

"If you're in Nairobi on a conference, it might be at the Norfolk Hotel (<here;)," O'Donnell says.

This historic hotel, which opened in 1904, is famed as the place where “Out of Africa” author Karen Blixen lived in the 1920s, and the Norfolk’s terrace bar is a top choice for tippling in old-world colonial-style.

Meanwhile, luxury hotel Tribe (<>;) in upscale Muthaiga, near the United Nations compound, also offers a prime spot for a poolside drink. Noted as the most modern hotel in the area, O'Donnell describes the bar scene as "sophisticated," and the environs as "very First World and shocking to see in Nairobi."

Then there's Carnivore (<here;) restaurant, which claims to have invented the Dawa, but is perhaps best known for the meaty offerings (lamb, pork, ostrich, even crocodile) its name suggests. Here, the house drink is delivered on a tray by a "medicine man" named "Dr. Dawa", and brandy, rum and tequila dawas are available in addition to the traditional vodka-based cocktail.

But it is Talisman (320 Ngong Road) in downtown Nairobi which O’Donnell considers to be “the best place in town” for a meal or a drink, and “the most happening place to see the local scene.”

With its low couches and beautiful gardens, the only thing needed to complete the scene is a Tusker or Dawa in hand.


This drink also works nicely with gin or white rum. The key item to have on hand is a swizzle stick or “dawa stick”, to stir the honey into the drink.

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 lime, quartered

2 ounces vodka

Honey (approximately 1 heaping Tablespoon)

In an Old Fashioned glass, muddle the limes with the brown sugar, crushing out as much lime juice as possible. Add crushed ice and vodka.

Dip a “dawa stick” in honey and twist it to coat. Use the honey-coated stick to stir the drink. Alternatively, a dollop of honey may be spooned into the drink, and then stirred from the bottom with the dawa stick.

Kara Newman is the author of “The Secret Financial Life of Food”, Columbia University Press; publication date autumn 2012. Any opinions expressed are her own. Editing by Peter Myers