1000-Year-Old West African Ginger Drink Gets New Life in Harlem
After arriving to the United States as teenagers, brothers Mohammed and Rahim Diallo lived hundreds of miles apart, moving from state to state, alone yet living parallel lives 4,000 miles away from home. Years later, when they reunited in New York City, they felt homesick for their native Guinea. Frustrated by the lack of readily available African products, they decided to create a drink they adored from childhood: ginjan, a ginger-based beverage popular across West Africa.
This was in 2014, when Mohammed worked in sales full-time, and Rahim was fresh out of his graduate engineering program. Drawing on their memories of ginjan and the input of their mother, they began to add to the millennia-old tapestry of ginjan-making in West Africa from their apartment in New York City. This August, they opened Ginjan Café in Harlem's historic Corn Exchange Building, where they serve the ginger drink, coffee, and pastries.
While recipes vary across regions and countries, their signature ginjan is made with organic cold-pressed ginger, pineapple, and lemon juices, and slightly mellowed by sugar, vanilla, and a touch of anise for a subtle, yet aromatic twist. For the brothers, creating ginjan was more than just a way to cure homesickness: it was also an opportunity to brand a small part the continent’s vibrant flavors and simple, fresh foods—a philosophy that’s trendy in the States, but is a way of life in Guinea. “The traditional stuff we grew up on is exactly what everyone's looking for,” Rahim explains. “Our food is fresh, organic, and non-GMO naturally—that’s what we eat by default.”
With less than $1000, the brothers started Ginjan Bros. and worked quickly on iterating and perfecting their recipe. Soon, the duo were hand delivering ginjan to over 90 stores in NYC—and in 2015, just seven months after the initial launch, they counted their biggest client to date: every Whole Foods in NYC, Westchester, and Long Island.
Despite the success of ginjan, the brothers knew they wanted to bring more of Africa to the masses—and while ginjan served as the perfect foundation, creating it was the start of making “African food, drink, and aesthetics an integral part of global culture,” Rahim says.
However, Africa's place in the global food conversation is still fraught. While many ingredients and techniques from Asia and Latin America have reached international ubiquity, African foods can be harder to find outside of Africa, despite the sheer size and diversity of the continent. In addition, stereotypes of primitive living persist—a stark contrast to the cosmopolitan cities where most call home. “I grew up people asking me if I had lions as pets in my backyard,” Mohammed recalls. “I was raised in Conakry, and I’ve never seen a lion in my life.”
The brothers see themselves as part of a vocal collective of entrepreneurs painting a more complete picture of Africa, one that eschews broad strokes.
“If I start talking about Africans in a sophisticated light, that doesn't work in your brain because we think of Africans as people of hunger, war, and corruption,” Rahim says. “The best way to change minds and hearts are through the things that are not quantifiable. It's the food, drink, culture, and music, and creating a community around that. It’s an opportunity to educate someone.”
With the opening of Ginjan Café in August, the brothers have solidified their resolve in changing the current paradigm of the continent.
“We wanted to create an immersive experience, to show the Africa that we know and see,” Mohammad says. Nestled in the historic Corn Exchange Building in East Harlem, the textures, flavors, and sounds of the continent hug every corner of the café: from the bold, geometric wallpaper designed by South African designer Ruen Ellis adorning almost every wall, and custom-made wood furniture, to the sounds of Afrobeats and Soukous playing softly throughout the space.
While there are no shortage of coffee drinks, exclusively made with a blend of African beans from La Colombe, the standouts are the café’s house specialties: kenkeliba, a herbal elixir said to be higher in antioxidants than green tea; bissap, a drink that gets its deep magenta hue and slight tang from hibiscus, enhanced with lemon, mint and cloves; attaye, a mint and gunpowder green tea blend, sweet and subtlety nutty from caramelized sugar; and, of course, ginjan, served three ways. The café also offers local pastries by Harlem artisans, and crepes by chef Pascal Marinier.
“When you walk in here, you know that this place is different, but you can’t put your finger on it—it’s almost like something out of Wakanda,” Rahim says, chuckling. “We’re promoting the beautiful culture of Africa that already exists.”
As Rahim handles operations and Mohammed works full-time on the retail end, they have plans to launch their own brand of bissap, along with expanding their offerings to include an African fast-casual lunch menu, brunch, and more. However, this is just the beginning of a much larger plan. “We started off with Africa, but our whole mission," Rahim says, “is to celebrate and highlight Black culture worldwide, wherever it’s marginalized.”