Active time:20 minutes
Total time:1h40 including 15 minutes of maceration and 1h of cooling
Servings:8 to 12 (makes 1 gallon)
Gatherings on June 19 usually feature red foods, which are used to symbolize resilience and joy. Delicious strawberry pie, barbecue, red rice, watermelon, hot sauce, red velvet cake and red sausages on the grill are all abundant. But no celebration would ever be complete without Red Drink.
This beloved beverage is a modern take on traditional African hibiscus ginger tea, and is often said to revitalize the mind, body and soul. In fact, the color red is often associated with ancestral reverence in West African traditions. This ubiquitous elixir remains popular because it connects our present to our past through food memories.
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The red drink is known by many names across Africa and the diaspora: bissap in Senegal, sorrel in the Caribbean, rosella in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, karkade in Egypt, agua fresca de jamaica in Central America and vinagreira in Brazil. .
Hibiscus plants, along with other native African plants such as ginger and spices, were transported with human cargoes during the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout slavery in the Americas, Red Drink was considered a healing drink used to cool overheated bodies working on plantations. Hibiscus was also highly prized at this time for its ability to relieve sudden pain, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressure exacerbated by stressful conditions. Combined with the warmth of ginger and the courage of traditional African spices, the bitter and sweet flavors of Red Drink were a liquid love letter in memory of a distant homeland. If you’ve ever tasted a “zinger” tea, that’s it – you’ve tasted West Africa.
Over the past 10 or so years, traditional hibiscus iced teas have grown in popularity. This is largely an effect of Jamaican restaurants popularizing sorrel and thus making this drink healthy for many people of African descent living throughout North America. This change is also seen as a form of resistance to food deserts and the food industry’s history of marketing unhealthy beverages – such as Kool-Aid, “Quarter Water”, Chubby Reggae Red Soda, Hawaiian Punch and other red-tinted sugary drinks – to the black community. (Why did the Kool-Aid Man have to sound like Louis Armstrong?).
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Choosing hibiscus teas over artificial, syrupy, preservative-laden imitations is an easy sell. The pretty ruby tone of Red Drink is dazzling. When sweetened with agave or raw sugar, its crisp acidity shines through, making it the perfect complement to cleanse the palate of rich baking spreads.
A quick warning: hibiscus flowers were traditionally used to dye fabrics – and they still work! So protect those light colored fabrics and surfaces.
We can all incorporate this delicious sip of soul food into our next summer gathering. It’s a refreshing way to celebrate and reflect on the day all Americans knew they were finally free.
Sunyatta Amen is a fifth-generation master herbalist and owner of Calabash Tea & Tonic in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington.
Sorrel (Caribbean red drink)
Storage Notes: Refrigerate up to 1 week.
Or buy: Roselle hibiscus flowers can be found in tea shops, Asian, Caribbean, Latin and health food markets, and online. African blue basil leaves can be found in home gardens or garden stores.
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- 1 liter of water
- 1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) dried roselle hibiscus flowers, cut or whole, or 1 cup fresh roselle flowers
- 6 whole allspices, folded in parchment paper and lightly crushed by tapping with a heavy bottle or knife handle
- 5 whole cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods, folded in parchment paper and lightly crushed by tapping with a heavy bottle or the handle of a knife
- 1/4 teaspoon green cardamom seeds
- 1 whole star anise, split, or 11 whole fennel seeds
- A cinnamon stick (1/2 inch)
- 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger or 1/4 teaspoon dried ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
- A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- Fresh raw cane juice, turbinado or agave raw sugar, optional, to taste
- Sprigs of fresh mint, preferably mojito or fresh basil leaves, preferably African or Thai blue basil, for serving (optional)
In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a vigorous boil. Add hibiscus flowers, allspice, cloves, cardamom pods and seeds, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, coriander and chili flakes. Stir and bring back to a rolling boil for 15 minutes. The liquid will reduce a little.
Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for at least 15 and up to 30 minutes. The longer the drink infuses, the darker and tastier it will become. Mix well and strain the drink through a fine mesh strainer into a 1 gallon pitcher.
While the drink is still hot, add fresh raw cane juice, turbinado raw sugar or agave, if using, to taste, stirring until well blended or dissolved. (The amount of sweetener will vary depending on the type and your taste; start with a little and taste until it’s to your liking.)
Refrigerate until chilled, if served cold, at least 1 hour. Mix well before serving and pour into jars or mason jars filled with ice. Garnish with sprigs of mint, basil or African blue basil, if using. The drink can also be served hot, if you prefer.
The ingredients are too variable for meaningful analysis.
From herbalist Sunyatta Amen, owner of Calabash Tea & Tonic in Washington, DC
Tested by Ann Maloney; questions by e-mail to [email protected].
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