The Taino Origins of Mamajuana
A traditional alcoholic drink from the Dominican Republic infused with medicinal herbs and barks.
I don’t know much about the food of the Dominican Republic. I went there once. 10 years ago maybe. Randomly, to some resort for a few days to just get away, and I was completely isolated from any sort of Dominican culture whatsoever (I wasn’t a fan of this resort, by the way). However, I’ve been following the work of Olivier Bur for some time. He’s a Dominican chef that was born in Switzerland. He’s been making exhaustive research trips into his home country and is uncovering a lot of interesting recipes and culinary process, which he is publishing on his website Comalo. Here he shares some of his research into Mamajuana, an herbal concotion with indigenous roots that is often misunderstood.
The Taino Origins of Mamajuana
By Olivier Bur
Before the Caribbean as colonized by the Spanish, the Tainos were fond of making herbal macerations and teas. They infused herbs and tree barks in water, a concoction that had different medicinal uses depending on the types of herbs that were used. For example, Uña de Gato (Uncaria tomentosa) might be used as an Anti-inflammatory, while the leaves of hoja de berrón (Pimenta racemose), or the bay rum tree, might be added for colds and viral infections. Guava leaf (Psidium guajava), field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and moringa (Moringa oleifera), among dozens of other herbs, might be added to treat everything from uterine bleeding to skin conditions. These infusions would form the foundation for modern day mamajuana.
After colonization, the Spanish added new ingredients to these Taino teas, soaking the assortment of herbs and tree barks in red wine, dark rum, honey and molasses. The name Mamajuana derived from the French word dame-jeanne that translates to carboy, a liquid container or a glass vessel with a large body and small neck. These vessels were used to transport liqueur and wine. Over time, the Spanish translation for Dama Juana soon became Mamajuana.
During the dictatorship of Trujillo, starting in the early 1930’s Mamajuana was prohibited. The infused liqueur had a reputation of giving aphrodisiac effects. After the dictator got killed in 50’s, the liquor regained its popularity. In the following years Mamajuana came in many shapes and forms. Versions with cured octopus and turtle meat got in the spotlight after various famous Merengue artists were seen drinking the liqueur as an aphrodisiac.
Today the infused liquor, commonly known as mamajuana, is sold in Santeria markets, from roadside stands and in commercial form from supermarkets. However, every street vendor has their own recipe for Mamajuana and carries with them a knowledge of each herb and their medincal properties.
Herbs used in Mamajuana
Bejuco Riñon [Smilax domingensis]
Marabely [Securidaca virgata]
Ginger bush [Pavonia spinifex]
Spiked Pepper [Piper aduncum]Z
Winged False Buttonweed [Borreria laevis/ Spermacoce remota]
Timacle [Chiococca alba]
Minnieroot [Ruellia tuberosa]Z
Pringamosa [Urtica dioica/ Urera baccifera]
Moringa [Moringa oleifera]
Gumbo Limbo [Bursera simaruba*]
Uña de Gato [Uncaria tomentosa]
Bejuco tres Costillas [Serjania triquetra]
Cinnamon [Cinnamomum verum/Canella winterana]
Pimenta [Pimenta haitiensis]
Cola de Caballo [Equisetum arvense]
Bay Rum Tree/Ciliment [Pimenta racemosa]
Guava Leaf [Psidium guajava]
Star Anise [Illicium verum/ekmanii]
French Lavender [Lavandula dentata]
Manzanilla [Chamaemelum nobile]
Yawweed/Cheese Shrub [Morinda royoc]
To prepare common Dominican Mamajuana the process starts by filling a bottle with tree bark and medicinal herbs. Boiling water is poured into the bottle and left to rest for 10 minutes. This step makes the wood expand and reduces the bitterness, that could take over the flavor of the final drink. When the water has been emptied out of the bottle, it is filled with one third red wine, honey and molasses. The sweeteners are added to start the fermentation process.
Over a period of 14 days the bottle has to be turned from time to time. The turning helps the herbs and tree bark to stay soaked. The bottle needs to be regularly opened and closed, so the gases that get produced can escape. When the liquid has fermented, the bottle gets topped up with dark rum. The drink can be consumed immediately but the flavor profile gets more balanced over time.
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Olivier Bur is a chef and son to a Dominican woman, born and raised in Switzerland. He’s worked in kitchens in Europe and Latin America. For the past six years, he’s been traveling around the Dominican Republic, searching for the origins of foods and exploring the challenges of preserving cooking techniques. The result of this journey is the collaborative project Comalo.info, a space for sharing knowledge about the culinary culture of the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean. He’s also cooking private events with his catering company and does popups with a project he co-founded called Zhorigo. Follow more of Olivier’s work on Instagram.