Nothing Says Christmas Like Sorrel, the Caribbean Hibiscus Drink
Like most parts of Diaspora cuisine, sorrel rarely gets to shine on its own. Here’s how to enjoy the tart, sweet, and spicy beverage to celebrate the season right.
As parts of my childhood get fuzzy with each passing year, my first sip of sorrel was too visceral to forget. My young palate recoiled at its complexity and strength, but it slowly grew into loving this vibrant drink steeped in my culture and “hibiscus.”
Like most parts of Diaspora cuisine, sorrel rarely gets to shine on its own. The seeds of hibiscus sabdariffa — not the hibiscus flower you may have seen in lush gardens — traveled to the Caribbean on slave ships. Able to thrive throughout the Tropics, the seeds took root, and West African drinks like zobo and bissap became sorrel.
Jamaica is the most well-known producer of this version of hibiscus, also known as roselle, partially thanks to the Latinx adoption of agua de jamaica. Black American red drink is occasionally its own form of sorrel, but these days can be any number of red punches. Roselle also grows throughout the Caribbean, and just like the nuance found in West Africa, every island has its own take.
Partially by virtue of being more populous nations in close proximity to the U.S., Jamaica and Haiti get most of the shine when it comes to West Indian culture. That means you’ve probably met more Jamaicans than say, someone from Guadeloupe, and made some broad assumptions about certain origin stories. Oral history isn’t heavy on dates, so who’s to say the various ginger-incorporating methods used in Jamaica came before or after Trinidad and Tobago’s savory addition of bay leaves to sorrel recipes?
While agua de jamaica is generally just sweetened tea made with roselle (and sometimes cinnamon), different Caribbean islands throw a variety of different ingredients into the mix. At the core of Jamaican sorrel is ginger and lime, but cloves, allspice, and/or orange peels can also join the party. The heat of each batch is controlled by what kind of ginger is added and when. As you move down the crescent of West Indian islands, only allspice and cinnamon enter optional territory. By the time you get to Trinidad and Tobago, bay leaves make a surprising entrance, and like in any pot of hot deliciousness, they make a huge difference that I cannot adequately put into words.
Roselle is harvested ahead of Christmastime — a period flush with carnivals throughout the West Indies. Sorrel’s deep red color and tart, sweet, and spicy flavor profile pair well with everything the season has to offer. On my island of Montserrat, Christmas Carnival is a fortnight of merriment, endless cups of the national dish goat water, and as many icy glasses of sorrel as you can handle. Whether you’re at a queen show (a pageant) or whining down the street in that day’s jump up (a parade with more audience participation), sorrel will be nearby to quench your thirst.
Whether spiked with rum or in its natural state, Montserratian sorrel reveres cloves — almost to the point of complete numbness in some cases (in a surprisingly good way!). Goat water, a stew best prepared over a fire to impart a smoky richness, carries a lot of heat from scotch bonnet pepper and/or chilis. Sorrel’s tartness and cloves provide a reprieve while its spices complement the stew’s flavors.
As a natural diuretic, sorrel should be enjoyed in moderation, regardless of its alcohol content. From experience, however, its taste and health benefits make it hard to resist another glass. A good source of beta carotene, vitamin C, and protein, this antioxidant is a gift that keeps giving. Anecdotally, it can even help ease menstrual cramps if consumed in the days leading up to a period.
If you’re sold on this miracle elixir, it’s easier to acquire and make than you think. You can find dried roselle in Asian and Latinx markets and sometimes in major grocery stores as “jamaica,” but packs of it are increasingly available online. Luckily, I live in a city where I can leave sorrel creation to the professionals, but I can still share some essential tips in lieu of a recipe:
1. Before attempting to make sorrel at home, thoroughly but gently rinse the flowers in a colander.
2. West Indian recipes have the benefits of fresh, whole spices. If you’re stuck with ground spices, I would recommend toasting them beforehand and increasing the amount the recipe calls for by at least half.
3. Cover your ingredients with boiling water; do not bring them all to a boil.
4. Steep at room temperature for at least 24 hours.
5. Sorrel should be a deep, ruby red color, but you can also dilute it for a more Christmassy tone.
6. Sorrel needs more sugar than you think, akin to Beyoncé’s lemonade recipe, even though everyone sweetens to their personal taste. You might need to pivot to artificial sweeteners, agave, or honey if you have health concerns like diabetes.