You say Rosellas, I say Roselles…
Revivals & Survivals: Flor de Jamaica
“Home made Rosella jam is unbeatable, easy to make as well.”
--David O’Bryan - Mansfield, QLD 18-Oct-2008,
Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery, http://www.daleysfruit.com.au/
Every so often someone pops up with a great new food discovery— Only on closer inspection, oops! It isn’t new, someone else published it years ago. Or it’s only new to us, elsewhere in the world it’s being consumed every day.
This is certainly the case with the “fruit” or “flower” of Hibiscus sabdariffa, the “roselle” or “jamaica” (“ha-MY-kah”). I came across references to it in a very old American cookbook published in the early 20th century and was quite intrigued when I realised I also had a reference to it from the Australian website, Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery (http://www.daleysfruit.com.au/), where it’s called the rosella, described as:
“An attractive annual bushy shrub with flowers and fruit used to give colour and flavour to jams, fruit punches, sauces and desserts. A relative of the hibiscus family, best grown in rich soil in a sunny position.”
The picture supplied (above) isn’t very clear. Small red buds?? The early recipes varied between “flowers” and “fruit”. Many varieties of hibiscus are grown in New Zealand and Australia as decorative plants and I knew them as garden flowers, so I assumed that the bright red colour must be from the crimson flowers with which I was familiar. Wrong…
Let’s look at the recipes: you’ll see why I was confused. The Khaki Kook Book: a collection of a hundred cheap and practical recipes mostly from Hindustan, by Mary Kennedy Core, Bareilly, India, was published in 1917 by an American missionary and contains mostly Anglo-Indian recipes which she gathered during her time in India in the 19th century. Many of them are typical of the food eaten by the British Raj, and the book is fascinating reading. However, there are some, like the ones for roselles, which definitely have an American origin.
Mary Kennedy Core writes:
“Roselles are a fruit belonging to the sorrel family. ... Long before the season is over the bushes are vivid with wine-red flowers. From the waxen petals of these flowers very delicious sauces, jams, chutneys, and jellies are made. ...
“The fruit is very rich in pectin, and not only gives a beautiful color when combined with any other fruit, but also adds much to the flavor. Combined with peaches or strawberries, cherries or guavas, or any other fruit that is deficient in pectin, the roselle has very satisfactory results. When used by themselves a fine jelly is made which is far superior to currant jelly.”
Remove the petals of the flower from the seed; then mince finely by running through the meat grinder. To every cup of minced petals add three cups of water. Boil quickly as the color is much better if it does not stand around. After boiling about five minutes it will be ready to strain. Strain and make as any other jelly. In flavor and appearance this jelly can not be surpassed.
Recipe no. 83.
Remove petals from the seed, and for every cup of petals take two cups of water. Stew gently for a few minutes, then add a cup of sugar for every cup of fruit. These two things must be remembered if one wishes to get the best results from the fruit. It must be well diluted and it must be cooked quickly, as it is apt to lose its bright color if it stands around.
Recipe no. 84.
Can you see why I was confused? She calls them both “fruit” and “petals”. They can’t be both!
Well, at this stage I just assumed that “roselles” or “rosellas” were the flowers and that the Daleys website users like David O’Bryan were an interesting example of the first “Survivals and Revivals” syndrome above: great new food discovery, except someone else published it years ago. –Incidentally, in Australia rosellas are small native psittacine birds, so don’t ask why the word got used for the flowering plant!
The perils of watching foodie programmes on the idiot box. I was following an SBS series and looked up “Egyptian Cuisine” on their website—more fool me, what did I want the stuff for, I already owned Claudia Roden’s classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food. In addition to a revolting recipe for a mess of greens, this is what I got:
“Karkade. The delicious refreshing red tea called karkade made with dried hibiscus flowers ... This Hibiscus tea is sought after for its medicinal properties. Drunk hot or cold, it is said to reduce high blood pressure and cool you down on a hot day in the desert.”
Hibiscus flowers eh? Hmm, intriguing, as Data would say, didn’t know that hibiscuses grew in— Hang on! Isn’t this the same as— Ooh, yes, hibiscus flowers are also roselles! Um, rosellas in Australia, pardon.
It was Agony, Ivy
I should have left it at that, but it kept nagging at me. Were they flowers or fruit?
Well, yeah, I might have left it, but guess what I came across when looking for something else entirely on Epicurious.com?
“Agua de Jamaica. A non-alcoholic drink from Mexico made with jamaica flowers. Recipe from Rick Bayless ‘Authentic Mexican’.” This tells you to use “jamaica flowers (dried hibiscus flowers)” which you boil in water with sugar, steep and strain, “pressing on the flower solids to extract as much liquid as possible.”
Well, that sounds clear, eh? Definitely flowers. Wrong. I conscientiously checked on GourmetSleuth.com and found:
“Jamaica. Other names: Hibiscus flowers, roselle, Jamaica sorrel. Spanish name: jamaica. Although referred to as ‘jamaica flowers’ these are actually hibiscus calyxes (the cover over the blossoms before they open). The flowers are used in Mexico for a tangy deep red ‘cooler’ called Agua de Jamaica. Other names for the ‘jamaica flowers’ include ‘hibiscus flowers’, ‘roselle’ and ‘Jamaica sorrel’. In Mexican grocery stores the common terms are either ‘jamaica’ or ‘flor de jamaica’. The plant is native from India to Malaysia and is now widely grown throughout the tropics and subtropics.”
WHAT? Do they really mean calyxes? (If you already know, you’ll know that this is correct, but by now I was totally confused.)
So I just thought I’d clarify it, on reading over what I’d collected so far—I mean, finding out the stuff was used in Egypt was extra-fascinating: meant it was a “Survival and Revival” of both types! I then found some very confusing sets of instructions online. None of the recipe sites explained what the “flowers” are, and one very modern health-food website talked at me, ugh!
Searching for Jamaica
I’ll spare you the agony. I finally got the dinkum oil from Wikipedia, though it took quite a lot of searching before I struck the right article. Do NOT search under “jamaica”, it’ll take you straight to the country and you’ll be stuck. Look up “Hibiscus tea” or “Roselle (plant)”. The initial definition was not that encouraging: “Hibiscus tea is a herbal tea made as an infusion from crimson or deep magenta-coloured calyces (sepals) of the roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) flower. It is consumed both hot and cold.”
Um, yeah. Well, my Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “calyx” as “Whorl of leaves (SEPAL) forming outer case of bud”, and none of my sources talked about buds, but then I had a good look at the excellent photos both Wikipedia sites provide and remembered what I’d read on that talking website:
“After the petals fall from the flower, the remaining deep red calyces (cup-like structures formed by the sepals) grow into seed-containing pods that resemble flower buds. It’s these red calyces that are used to make hibiscus tea.” http://products.mercola.com/hibiscus-tea/
Oops, yes, it had the dinkum oil after all! I’m not recommending it as a website, but this description is definitely the clearest and best. You have to remove the actual seed pod before using the calyces/calyxes (the Concise Oxford accepts both spellings). This can be done with a little implement, as in the entrancing picture below from Wikipedia, or you can wait until the roselles dry out a bit and then peel the sepals off.
Poke the seed pod out with your little implement. What is left is the Mexican “flor de jamaica,” the American “roselle” or “jamaica”, the Australian “rosella”, or the “hibiscus flower.” It is used in many other parts of the world under many other names, too.
What’s it taste like? Very tart, is the word, rather like cranberry juice: it needs sweetening.
Wikipedia also supplies a picture which includes both the flower (very insignificant) and the calyces:
“Roselle plant at Wave Hill, Bronx, New York, 2014,
showing leaf, flower, bud and dark red calyces”
by Invertzoo - own work. (Wikipedia)
In Conclusion, Let Me Say Just This…
It didn’t help, interesting and informative though Daleys is, that one of their correspondents had described the plant as H. sabdarifa (one F) instead of Hibiscus sabdariffa. To sort that one out without any possibility of mistake I had to consult the USDA. Ya never heard of them? No, well, at one stage in my inglorious career I worked in an agricultural research library. That’s the United States Department of Agriculture, folks, and if they’re wrong on botany the whole world is wrong.
Hibiscus sabdariffa L. roselle
Kingdom Plantae – Plants
Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Family Malvaceae – Mallow family
Genus Hibiscus L. – rosemallow
Species Hibiscus sabdariffa L. – roselle
Obsessive? You betcha. It’s from both sides of the family, too.
Glass of iced roselle tea