Inkiwäärijuoma; or, May Day the Finnish Way

A week from now is May Day, and I just know you’ve all been dying to celebrate it the way we Finns do. I know, I know, we’re not known as particularly festive, exuberant or ebullient. But May Day is special. May Day is the beginning of spring (though traditionally the weather is usually awful), May Day is a day of balloons and streamers and picnics after a long, dark and dreary six-to-eight months.

Oh yeah and somewhere in there is a celebration of the proletariat, and equality, and education, but we tend to forget about most of it. Although May Day is the one day a year we pull out our white hats that prove we’ve completed secondary academic education. No longer the feat it was 150 years ago. Mrs. Hindle’s hat is a tad small and tends to result in a headache.

An integral part of May Day celebrations are deep-fried donuts and a drink we call “sima”. Sima is… well, it’s like mead but it’s not mead. It used to be mead, a fermented honey drink, but then sugar became readily available and now it’s made with sugar and lemon. The Hindle household loves ginger and we add a good dose to our sima, and behold my joy when one of the oldest Finnish cookbooks in my collection, Aunt Hilda’s Cookbook from 1878, had a ginger-version of sima called Inkiwäärijuoma.

Ginger drink.

“1,5 pounds sugar, two lemons cut, 2 lots ginger are put in a stone pot. A pint of boiled water is poured on after which the pot is covered and placed aside until it is cool after which the contents are poured into a clean container and diluted with four pitchers of wellwater, along with three tablespoons of good yeast are whisked in. Then it may ferment to the second day when it is poured into bottles through a cloth. The bottles are corked and sealed and kept in the cellar. Already in a week’s time the drink will be ready.”

The trick with sima is that you have to remember to make it five or so days in advance. Not an easy feat for someone as detached from reality as Mrs. Hindle.

Now, I made a half batch of this because we had our regular recipe puffing away in a bucket already. What you’ll need then is:

  • 320 grams sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 13 grams ginger
  • 7 dl water
  • A small piece of fresh yeast, about the size of a pea
  • 4 liters water (I actually put a bit less because my bowl was too small)
Only after I finished this did it hit me that the recipe might refer to powdered ginger rather than fresh. Maybe I’ll try that next.

I’m sure the “stone pot” in the text has to refer to an earthenware jar. But a plastic bucket will work just as well. Slice the lemon and ginger, put in a bowl with the sugar and pour boiling water on top.

Not the most practical container, but it’s so pretty and I don’t use it often enough.

Let the mixture cool a bit, then add the rest of the water and the yeast. Make sure the water is lukewarm so your yeast stays alive. Cover with some plastic and let stand until the next day.

And that’s where I am now. Today is day two and if the yeast has done its magic the mix should be a bit frothy. Tonight I will strain the drink into bottles. I use plastic bottles and don’t fill them all the way up because the drink will keep fermenting and that builds up pressure. I once gave a bottle of my sima to my sister and it exploded in her kitchen. Lesson learned.

Five days is enough to give you a sugary, fresh-tasting beverage that goes great with traditional May Day picnic fare – sausages, potato salad and donuts. Now go forth and party like Finns! Bathe in a fountain if you can find one.

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