Summer cooking is all about bright colors and even brighter flavors. But this summer’s boldest ingredient does not come from the any of the farm stands or local markets that light up over the summer, but from the dried section of your nearest Hispanic-foods supermarket. Rosa de Jamaica, also known as hibiscus or red sorrel, is slowly becoming more popular in the United States, as supermarkets stock up on lesser-known ingredients and their customers desire to keep up with globetrotting chefs popularizing obscure ingredients. While known outside of the U.S. for centuries in countries like India, Egypt, Mexico, Guatemala and Africa, rosa de Jamaica did not become widely known in the States until Celestial Seasoning’s released its Red Zinger tea in the 1970’s, and rosa de Jamaica was its first ingredient.
Known as Hibiscus sabdariffa L. in Latin, rosa de Jamaica is a bushy annual known for its fragrant, blood red calyces (commonly mistaken as flowers or petals), or the covering that protects its seed. When boiled in water, the calyces give off a deep, rich purple color that borders on black. Mixed with sugar, a little lime juice and a splash of mineral water, it makes a refreshing drink for those hot summer days that are upon us. But the calyces also make for great eating. With a tart and tangy flavor, something like a cranberry, many chefs substitute one for the other. Sautéed in a little olive oil or butter, Jamaica makes great fillings for quesadillas, chicken breasts or pork tenderloins. Mixed with ginger, lime juice and a little sugar, it could be served as a salsa for seafood.
Yes, it tastes good, but rosa de Jamaica is also packed with nutrients. It is high in calcium, vitamin C and niacin. It has been used to treat coughs and fevers. And if nothing else, it is a natural diuretic and anti-parasitic (very useful when you live in a developing country and are fond of street food). In some places, it is said to cure hangovers (it goes without saying this is also quite useful).
Next, three delicious recipes (including a cocktail!) to help you get started.