The History of Hibiscus Drinks in the African Dias…


2 glasses of sorrel in rocks glasses on a gold tray

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Each Christmas season, people across the Caribbean raise a ruby glass of sorrel in celebration. But while sorrel is commonly associated with Jamaica, iterations of the refreshing tart-sweet hibiscus drink abound: it’s known as agua de Jamaica, jugo de Jamaica, or rosa de Jamaica in much of Latin America; bissap in Senegal; sobolo in Ghana; and zobo in Nigeria. It can be enjoyed hot or cold; with or without wine; and is sometimes mixed with an overproof rum or other alcohol. Most use a sweetener like simple syrup, brown or cane sugar, or honey; some brew it with aromatics and spices like cloves, ginger, cinnamon, allspice (also known as pimento), star anise, bay leaves, nutmeg, vanilla, or mint. Still others add a citrus boost of lemon, lime, or orange.

No matter the version, this family of aromatic drinks all begins with the Hibiscus sabdariffa, often called roselle, a plant indigenous to continental Africa that now flourishes in tropical regions of the Western hemisphere. Hibiscus-based beverages are made by steeping the calyx of the plant—a plump, radiant cup-like formation at the base of the flower that contains a seed. Once harvested and divested of their seeds, calyces can be used fresh or dried in recipes like jams, cordials, and, of course, tea-style beverages like sorrel.

Hibiscus calyx

Hibiscus calyces on the plant [Photograph: Getty Images]

For many Afro-Diasporans, hibiscus drinks do more than nourish the body and raise the spirits: they invoke history.

When the transport of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic began in the early 1500s, livestock and plants like hibiscus also made the voyage. In “Seeds of Memory: Botanical Legacies of the African Diaspora,” UCLA geography professor Judith Carney explains that the indigenous African foliage and plants served a dual purpose: they were meant to keep the animals alive, and having access to these familiar foods and medicinal plants increased the chances that enslaved people would survive the journey. As a byproduct, “In the early colonial period, plantation owners encountered many new plants growing in the food plots of their slaves,” writes Carney. “Many of these dietary staples are still known in the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English languages by the place name ‘guinea,’ the name slave traders generally applied to the African continent.”

Thanks to tropical climates comparable to West Africa’s, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the American South became a new home for “guinea sorrel.” In addition to its medicinal and culinary applications, hibiscus and other transplants, like okra and kola nuts, likely served a greater purpose: “Having the same plant in the tropical Americas was a semblance of hope,” says Michael W. Twitty, the culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. “You reinforced your identity, you reinforced the things that made you happy, you reinforced memories of things that would otherwise be lost.”

In fact, food historian Adrian Miller has made the argument that hibiscus tea, in combination with kola nut tea, formed the basis for red drink—a reference to several red beverages, such as red flavored Kool-Aid, the soft drink Big Red, and old-school, carbonated red drinks—an iconic piece of African American culinary traditions that he refers to as “liquid soul.” Like sorrel, red drink is often associated with celebrations, and records show its presence on US plantations during slavery and after Emancipation, as well as, more recently, Juneteenth.

These traditions continue today. Andrea K. Castillo, the Brooklyn-born, Belizean-American founder of Cas Rum Beverages, followed in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, who made fruit wine. The entrepreneur’s love for beverages led her to bottle up her creations for friends, family, and strangers, and eventually launch her bottled rum-cocktail company in 2019. The lineup includes three flavors: rum punch, rum popo, and rum sorrel. “These three things represent my culture and the greater Caribbean diaspora,” says Castillo. “I’m literally able to share my culture with each bottle.”

a pile of Jamaican sorrel (hibiscus) leaves

Her recipe for sorrel, which derives from a Jamaican sorrel recipe, balances sweet elements with citrus, Belizean overproof rum, and pimento seeds. After bringing water to a boil, she pours it over the dried hibiscus flowers, pimento seeds, and ginger juice, then pours it back in the pot and lets the mixture sit for about 24 to 72 hours. Once strained, Castillo adds sugar, lemon juice, and rum, mixes it all, and prepares it for distribution.

Over the years, there have been a number of boutique beverage brands selling the bright-to-maroon-colored concoction to large-scale commercial businesses, especially Caribbean beer companies like Shandy Carib and Red Stripe. It’s not uncommon for Latin American, Caribbean, or African restaurants of any size to offer a traditional version of sorrel or a fusion cocktail or rum punch version.

With various renditions found across the diaspora, Chef Pierre Thiam, co-founder of Teranga, a fast-casual West African restaurant nestled within East Harlem’s Africa Center, views the dried roselle as a bridge.

“Food, in general, and ingredients, in particular, are unique connectors between cultures,” says the Dakar-born executive chef. “Hibiscus, in this case, transcended borders through the Middle Passage. When I visit Mexico or Jamaica, and I am served their version of bissap, there is a familiarity that makes me feel as if I was home.”

Riaz Phillips, author of Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, recalls his aunts’ fridges stocked with sorrel. Though there hasn’t been much documentation on how Afro-descendants, particularly those of Caribbean descent, preserve cultural cuisine in Europe, the East London–born writer has made it a priority to document the UK’s Caribbean culinary scene. Phillips, who is of Jamaican-Vincentian-Cuban heritage, sees how the dried hibiscus flowers found in popular markets in Dalston and Brixton connect to the Caribbean community in places like Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and ultimately, to the African continent.

“This plant, like all other pan-African foodstuffs, including the famed plantain, can be a representation to illustrate our unified origins and highlight how similar we all are,” says Phillips. “We get wrapped up in these modern nations and flags, but the interesting founding histories of all these do well to document that we all come from the same people, and all eat and drink the same things.”

In the case of sorrel, “that’s Black joy and Black survival,” says Twitty, “and Black culture, and Black foodways, and Black drinkingways—all bound up in one cup of hibiscus.”

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