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I will share the experience of my first sip of the dark red colored elixir called sorrel towards the end of this article. For now, let’s uncover this tangy plant that has many health benefits and a phenomenal taste to match. Hibiscus is known by several names across the diaspora. Whether it is the Egyptian karkade, Caribbean sorrel, Mauritanian beesam, Dominican agua de Jamaica, or Senegalese bissap, this deep red flower and its leaves pack an amazing dose of nutrients and healing properties.
First cultivated extensively in China, hibiscus is native to the more warm temperate zones of West Africa. It is most commonly steeped as a tea but is also coated in sugar for a candied sweet, worn in the hair of women at festivals and celebrations and used as a decorative element in gardens.
As a drink, it is enjoyed hot or cold. The natural tartness of the deep red elixir emitted by boiled hibiscus leaves is often sweetened with sugar or honey to taste. When combined with aromatic ingredients like cinnamon, allspice and cloves, hibiscus takes a decidedly African turn, reminiscent of basement parties and festive community baby showers.
But aside from being a drink that contains many possibilities for flavor variation, hibiscus has deep healing properties. The flower has been known to assist in the relief of high blood pressure and is widely known for its cooling properties. Hibiscus can also improve immune function and prevent cell damage. It also contains a healthy source of vitamin c and beta-carotene. It is also known to assist in fighting inflammation and, when taken without added sweeteners, has been used as a weight loss aid.
The most special quality of hibiscus does not only lie in its flowers, leaves and stems. It is also a plant that represents cultural connection. I first encountered hibiscus when I was poured a cup of ice-cold bissap in the town of Medina Baye. I was a teenager, fresh off the plane from NYC, arriving in Senegal to begin a tour of study. Everything around me was new and even though it was my first time having a sip of the sweet burgundy iced bissap, it didn’t taste foreign.
The taste was a lot like the sorrel that I’d tasted on many a hot summer day in Brooklyn, but the bissap had something more. There was something ancestral in its flavor.
I didn’t have the words to describe the experience then, but I know now that drinking bissap helped me to reconnect to a culture I had long lost. I have now had the pleasure of tasting hibiscus tea, both hot and cold, in a number of countries and with people from all over the African diaspora.
Not only a drink with health benefits, but hibiscus also binds us to our indigenous cultures in the sweetest of ways.
Words by Kaba Abdul-Fattaah