Red sorrel drying in the sun

Hibiscus sabdariffa. Here in Jamaica, jamaica is sorrel. But, much like everything else throughout Diaspora (and around the world), there are one hundred and one names for the stuff. Alright, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, there are about five that I can think of including jamaica (my personal favorite) and sorrel. There is, of course, hibiscus but in various African countries its called bissap (from the Wolof ), karkadé (Northern Africa and the Middle East), and roselle in other parts of the Caribbean and Asia, and of course, hibiscus in the United States. It originated in tropical Africa and for very good reason, it is a popular drink everywhere from Mexico and Egypt to India and Sudan, and of course, Jamaica, which is where I am based at the moment. It is popular throughout the Caribbean as a traditional Christmas drink but these days it’s consumed all year round these days with nuff ginger and pimiento (allspice). I am almost ashamed to say that my first experience with the drink was as a Klass drink mix at a Mexican street festival in Chicago but not so ashamed to say that I adored it and was kept from stocking my pantry with it only by the obscenely high sugar content the drink mixes boast. Soon, though, I made the connection between it and the brilliant red herbal tea that as a child I sometimes brewed and from teabags scrounged from the back of our kitchen cabinets that no one ever seemed to use.

The drink and flowers that most are familiar with are a beautiful ruby red color and extremely perishable, which is why most people may have more experience with the dried flowers. I was informed that it’s almost never dried in Jamaica unless people are planning to take it ‘in farin’ (abroad, in Jamaican) because it is available year round. This is most likely true for other tropical and sub-tropical areas blessed with great warmth and sunshine throughout the year too. However there are two other varieties, white sorrel and black sorrel. I haven’t yet found the elusive black sorrel (although I’m on a quest), but I stumbled across the white variety one day on a trip through the market with John…

White sorrel inna di market with John

Red and white sorrel

Jamaica‘s healthful properties are widely known and it is, in many places drunk as a refreshment and an herbal supplement or remedy. It’s packed with antioxidants and vitamin C and is used to help control high blood pressure and lower cholesterol, not to mention its diuretic properties. Click here is an excellent Spanish-language overview of the healing properties of jamaica with a few links (some in English) at the end. An older Jamaican couple even claimed that it can help you look younger. They drink plenty and certainly look far younger than their real ages. Plenty of sunshine, Jamaica, and jamaica. Who’s to say they’re not on to something there?

In Jamaica there are commercially produced jugs of it with an addition of ginger for sale alongside the milk and fruit juices (all made from fruits or flowers in this case, cane sugar, and water) in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Walk into any market and you’re bound to see vendors with piles of the flowers for sale somewhere amid their wares.

Selling fresh sorrel

I decided to take it home both the red and the white and make two batches to compare. I boiled water and set them both to draw, starting first with the white. My preference is for a mildly sweet and almost mouth-puckering citrus-y flavor, so I added plenty of fresh lemon juice (Jamaican lemons are other-wordly by the way and worthy of a post or two). The white seemed to have a milder flavor but I did use few flowers in that batch than with the red. I added a bit of bruised ginger and brown sugar (demerara, really) to both and had a refreshing drink when I returned home each day. For the red batch I dried the flowers and used them a few days after buying, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of taste–all versions are delicious.

White sorrel "drawing"

Christmas sorrel with ginger and allspice "drawing"

At Christmas the drink becomes another animal entirely strongly flavored with ginger and allspice and sometimes spiked with rum. The brew I had the pleasure of drinking had been drawn (steeped) to a light syrupy consistency. As a result I am convinced that large quantities of hibiscus when soaked can have a viscous quality without the addition of sugar. The drink was fabulous and rich but not really something you’d drink to quench a thirst. I imagined that warmed this freshly made juice would be excellent on dreary winter day and a restorative for those with a cold or the flu.

Jamaica or Sorrel or Fresh Hibscus Juice

1. 1 pound hibiscus flowers fresh or dried
2. 8 cups water*
3. Sugar to taste
4. Lemon juice to taste**
5. Fresh ginger, bruised to taste

Set water to boil. Wash hibiscus flowers in cold water. Swish them gently a few times in clean water to remove dirt or any critters that may be lodged in them. Drain them and put them in a large bowl or pot. Make sure you use something non-reactive (i.e., metal, plastic, or glass). While waiting for the water to boil, peel and bruise a 1-1½ inch piece of fresh ginger. Bruise the ginger by gently (or violently if you like) smashing the ginger with side of your knife. Add the peeled, bruised ginger to the bowl of hibiscus flowers

When water has boiled pour over the hibiscus flowers and ginger and leave them to sit or draw. Leave them to sit as long as possible, 4-6 hours is best but if you can’t do that leave them at least an hour. The longer the flowers draw, the more flavorful your juice in the end.

After the flowers have drawn sufficiently, strain the liquid and pour your juice into a pitcher. At this point add your lemon juice and sweeten to taste. Remember that if you plan to store the juice in bottles it’s recommended that you sweeten before pouring the juice into the bottles. Store juice in refrigerator and consume within a week or so.

All of the quantities are relative depending upon your tastes, so play around with it. If you like your juice stronger and thicker use more sorrel and less water and steep it as long as possible. If you prefer it as more of an agua fresca, add more water. Tangier? Use more lemon juice or try limes. If you like it sweeter, add more sugar it’s all up to you. You can even add rum to this juice and serve it as a cocktail.

Alternate mode of preparation:
You can also add the hibiscus and ginger to the water and simmer them at a low boil for about 10 minutes and then turn off the flame and allow the mixture to steep for 4-6 hours.

Christmas Sorrel (variation)

When making this variety you should begin the process as early as six months before the holidays although some people use a bit of the previous year’s sorrel as a starter for the current year, a bit like a starter. Follow the recipe above adding a 2-3 inch piece of boiled ginger and 1 teaspoon of allspice berries to the hibiscus flowers, pour hot water over the flowers, ginger, and allspice berries and allow them to steep. When juice has cooled add a cup of of white or light rum to the mixture and pour into bottles. Add a few raisins and 1 or 2 grains of rice to each bottle, seal them and store them in a cool dark place to cure until needed. Again quantities are relative depending upon your tastes.

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