The first time I sipped hibiscus flower tea was at a short-lived Caribbean barbecue joint in Milpitas. Served over ice, the tea was tart and refreshing with a flavor faintly reminiscent of cranberries. The owner called it jamaica, I assumed after his homeland.
As is often the case, though, as soon as I was aware of jamaica, I began to spot it on the menus of Mexican restaurants everywhere I went in the South Bay. Jamaica (ha-mike-a), it turned out, is Spanish for hibiscus. I loved the underlying flavor, but the Mexican version was usually too sweet for me. I would order it with ice and then wait for the cubes to melt and dilute the drink.
When I spotted the familiar red beverage at a Portland farmers market recently, it felt like time to try to make my own.
Finding hibiscus flowers was the first task. Any well-stocked Mexican market should have the dried blossoms among the spices. Dashen International Groceries on Glisan Street had them on a back shelf.
The blossoms are almost black and not terribly appetizing. Don’t be deterred. The flavor is outstanding.
The traditional recipe is very simple. Dried flowers are steeped in boiling water with spices and sugar, then the mixture is strained after it cools. To the usual cinnamon stick, I’ve added a couple of star anise for more character. I also introduced another layer of flavor with orange juice and slices of lemon and lime.
This citrusy tea is a great base for a summer spritzer or a light sangria — sweet but tart and nicely spiced.
It works well for parties because guests can choose whether they’d like alcohol or not. I serve it in a pitcher and suggest they add sparkling water to taste for a thirst-quenching spritzer. A splash of dry rosé — I like Marqués de Cáceres from Spain — produces a light sangria.
This is a festive drink, just made for hot August nights. I plan to serve it often this summer.
Makes about 8 servings6 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (about 3 ounces)
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1 medium orange
1 bottle sparkling water
1 bottle rosé wineBring water to boil in a large saucepan. Turn off heat. Stir in sugar, hibiscus flowers, cinnamon stick and star anise. Let steep while the water cools, about an hour. Strain the liquid into a large pitcher and discard the flowers and spices. The base can be made and refrigerated up to a couple of days in advance at this point.
A couple of hours before serving, squeeze orange and add juice to the base. Thinly slice lemon and limes and add. Chill.
To serve: Place ice in a glass and fill a little more than halfway with jamaica. For a non-alcoholic drink, top off with sparkling water and stir. For sangria, add a good splash of wine, top off with sparkling water and stir.