I first tried prú at a cafetería by the University of Havana in 2019. My boyfriend and I were wandering around Calle J, sweating buckets and searching desperately for something cold and cheap to quench our thirst. When we happened upon the cafetería and spotted prú on the menu, his eyes lit up. “Have you ever had this?” he asked, and when I shook my head no, he walked straight up to the window and ordered two glasses.
The drink he put down in front of me was the color of an amber lager–while usually darker, depending on the specific recipe, prú can range anywhere from dark brown to yellowish. Cautiously, I took a sip and licked the froth from my mouth. It was fizzy and sweet with a tang of spice, just what we needed to cool down. And the best part is, prú is also super good for you!
The best prú I’ve had to date was in Guanabacoa, where you can stop and buy a bottle while taking a free tour of the historic municipality.
Originally thought to have been brought to eastern Cuba by French colonists and French-Haitian enslaved people after the Haitian Revolution, prú–also known as prú oriental–is the original detox drink. Brewed with ingredients like ginger, cinnamon, and raíz de china, it has amazing purifying and digestive properties and is full of antioxidants. Some Cubans even say it makes for a great aphrodisiac.
It’s hard to describe prú to people who aren’t familiar with it, especially since many of the herbs used to make it aren’t native to regions outside of Mexico and the Caribbean. However, it’s basically just Cuban root beer: a non-alcoholic fermented soft drink with that characteristic Cuban kick. In fact, one of the main ingredients–the raíz de china–comes from the same plant family (Smilax) as the sarsaparilla used to flavor the root beer we know and love here in the U.S.
While it started in the eastern part of the island, prú is now consumed and sold all over Cuba. Nevertheless, like most things, the best prú isn’t what’s found in restaurants; it’s the homemade stuff. Besides the fact that homemade prú just tastes better, many Cuban families have in recent years begun to sell prú directly out of their houses as a means of earning supplemental income. This means that buying straight from a local vendor will not only guarantee you a better beverage experience, but you’ll also be ensuring that your money is making a difference.
The best prú I’ve had to date was in Guanabacoa, where you can stop and buy a bottle while taking a free tour of the historic municipality. However, since current travel restrictions might make that difficult, check out the recipe below to make your own prú at home! It’s a little start-and-stop, but is otherwise easy to make and sure to yield delicious results.
Cuban Prú Recipe
- 30g jaboncillo (chinaberry)
- 30g bejuco ubí or 15g ground bejuco ubí–find a 60g bag of the powder version here (price in USD, including shipping, is $40.81)
- 3g Jamaican pimento leaves
- 15g fresh ginger
- 150g raíz de china (in Mexico it’s known as cocolmeca)
- 4g cinnamon sticks
- 2.5L of water
- 100g brown sugar
**Note: You can save the pulp from your first batch–called prú madre–to enhance the flavor of your next one**
Place a large pot (a stock pot works well) with the 2.5L of water on high heat while you cut the chinaberry, raíz de china, ginger, and–if fresh–bejuco ubí into pieces. Add all the ingredients except brown sugar to the pot, stirring occasionally for about an hour. Cover and allow to rest overnight.
Next, strain the mixture and keep the pulp for a later batch, if desired. Add in the brown sugar and mix until fully dissolved. Once this is done, pour the prú into a sealable container like a plastic water bottle. Let rest for 3-4 days (the longer the better for your first batch) in a dark place so that it can begin to ferment.
Refrigerate before serving or serve over ice.
**Handy tip: To avoid the geiser of foam typical of so many fermented and carbonated drinks, hold the bottom of the bottle with the palm of your hand when opening it**