The traveler’s tea: Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus Tea
Upon crossing the border into Mexico from Guatemala, I encountered a truly godly substance. It is a bright purple liquid, served cold — often with ice — is sweet, smooth tasting, while maintaining a refreshingly bitter edge. This bright purple drink is served just about everywhere en masse in the south of Mexico — at sidewalk cafes, in taco haunts, restaurants, tea houses — for 10 pesos a glass. It is called flor de Jamaica in Mexico, Jamaican flower or hibiscus tea in English.
In the hot jungle climate of Palenque, I first encountered this drink, and it truly hit the spot when sweltering on a sunny day. On hot days there are few things better to drink that flor de Jamaica — hibiscus tea.
What is flor de Jamaica/ Hibiscus tea?
Called flor de Jamaica in Latin America, karkadé in Egypt and Sudan, bissap in West Africa, sorrel in Jamaica, saril in Panama, roselle in Southeast Asia, carcadè in Italy, and many other things in many other places, hibiscus tea is consumed throughout the world. But what is in this pretty purple stuff?
There are over 200 species of hibiscus flowers, which belong to the Malvaceae family and come in a variety of colors. The most prominent color of hibiscus flowers — and therefore hibiscus tea — is dark purplish/ red, a color which comes from the natural cyanidin and delphinidin acids that it contains.
Making tea from this flower has been popular throughout the world for thousands of years and has been inveigled into many cultural traditions. In Egypt and throughout North Africa, where it is still a very popular, hibiscus tea is said to have been the drink of the pharaohs. In Egypt and Sudan, wedding celebrations are traditionally toasted with a glass of hibiscus tea, it is the national drink of Senegal, is very popular in Malaysia, and is often consumed around Christmas time in the Caribbean and Panama.
Hibiscus is truly an international tea, the tea of the traveler.
How to make flor de Jamaica, hibiscus tea
Hibiscus tea, in its simplest form, is just an infusion of hibiscus leaves in either hot or cold water. But various cultures have added their own twists to the drink. In Jamaica, hibiscus tea is made from steeping the peddles of the flower in boiling water with ginger, then adding sugar, and sometimes rum. In Panama, chopped ginger, sugar, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg are added. In West Africa, hibiscus tea is often flavored with mint. In Trinidad and Tobago, a brewery makes a hibiscus tea flavored beer called Sorrel Shandy.
While here in Mexico, I sometimes brew my hibiscus tea with tequila — though I believe that this is my own twist, not a cultural atonement.
How I make flor de Jamaica tea in Mexico
In Mexico, dried hibiscus petals are sold in bulk in large array of places: herb shops, vegetable markets, and supermarkets. For under a dollar, a large sack of hibiscus petals ready to be stepped into a tea can be purchased. I bought a huge bag for 12 pesos at a spice and herb shop and asked the woman behind the counter how to make the tea. She looked at me as though I was nuts:
“You put the leaves in water.”
I took her simple advice, added some sugar, but found my creation lacking the flavor that I had tasted many times when ordering hibiscus tea in restaurants and tea houses. I needed a new recipe, I sought vaster sources of information: I consulted the internet.
How to make hibiscus tea:
4 cups water
1/2 cup dried Jamaica flowers
1/2 cup sugar
Another 3 cups of cold water
More sugar to taste
1 lime, thinly sliced
I basically followed this recipe, though disregarded the quantities mentioned: I just made it look good. Filling a pot with water I added in a branch of peeled ginger and a lot of sugar, which I then brought to a boil on the stove top. I then removed the mix and added in multiple handfuls of hibiscus petals, thickly covering the entire surface of the water. I then squeezed in a couple limes and let it cool. Upon cooling, I squeezed as much of the purple substance that I could out of the steeping petals, and then tossed them out. I now put the tea into a pitcher and threw it in a refrigerator to cool. An hour later, I poured myself a refreshing glass of flor de Jamaica.
Health benefits of Hibiscus tea
For hundreds of years the medicinal properties of hibiscus tea have been known throughout the world. Hibiscus flowers are packed with high quantities of vitamin C along with citric, maleic, and tartaric acids. In Egypt, people drink hibiscus tea in large amounts to lower blood pressure; in China, it is a remedy in many medicinal teas; in Okinawa, hibiscus tea is associated with longevity; in North Africa, it has long been known to function as a body refrigerant. Drinking a cup of hibiscus tea after meals is also thought to reduce the absorption of carbohydrates and can help with weight loss.
Best of all, perhaps, is that hibiscus tea can also be combined with Chinese tea and made into wine.