Sweet or spicy, the appeal of sorrel goes well beyond the holidays
“I didn’t even realize that sorrel was a holiday thing until maybe ten years ago,” says Kevin Chinn, director of operations for Negril Jamaican Eatery, a collection of Jamaican take-out restaurants with locations in Washington, DC and Maryland. His father opened the first location in 1979, serving sorrel alongside golden brown coconut bread, spicy jerk chicken sandwiches, and house beef patties. “It was just still there.”
With its evocative red color and tangy flavor, sorrel is a familiar sight in many Caribbean communities where it is sold in small bottles in stores, or behind a take-out counter in a beverage vending machine or at meetings. But the holidays are where the drink shines, becoming part of the festivities, served in party punch bowls, sometimes with rum or red wine and sometimes without. While not exclusively consumed in December, sorrel is a holiday tradition in many Caribbean islands and in Caribbean communities around the world, giving immigrants to the Caribbean a taste of home away from home. holidays.
The drink is made from roselle, a relative of hibiscus and okra. There are conflicting stories about the origin of roselle, but it grows mainly in India, West Africa, and Malaysia. It was brought to today’s Americas during the transatlantic slave trade, where it may have been planted. The waxy flowers of the plant are dried, infused like tea, and combined with spices and sugar to create sorrel. The drink has different names in different parts of the world: sorrel in the United States and the Caribbean; bissap, sobolo or zobolo in West Africa; or flor de jamaica in Central America and Mexico. In all of these places, it’s a slightly acidic red drink that can be alcohol-free or fortified with rum and even tequila.
“You can trace sorrel’s origins back 500 years,” says Jackie Summers, founder and CEO of Sorel Liqueur, a long-life liqueur based on the drink. He remembers looking forward to sorrel at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, an annual festival with food trucks and music celebrating Caribbean culture. “I wanted the food, the roti and the patties and the curry goat cheese, the sorrel,” he says.
As he got older and learned more about the drink, he realized that there was so much more history to this bright red drink. “Our ancestors knew the benefits of hibiscus and the knowledge of what this plant was and what it can do traveled to the Caribbean,” he says.
The Caribbean is where the transatlantic slave trade and the spice trade converged, creating variations on the drink, Summers says. In Jamaica, sorrel recipes include ginger, cardamom, allspice, spices similar to those found in fatty, creamy jerk pork and drum chicken. In Trinidad, sorrel is flavored with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, testifying to India’s influence on the island’s cuisine. And in Barbados, where the Summers family is from, a glass of sorrel was probably boosted by rum. “In Barbados, there’s rum in everything,” he laughs.
The “rules” for making sorrel in your own home are to know the history and then to taste as much as possible until you land on what you like. The flexibility of sorrel to suit the preferred flavor profile of whoever makes it, which is why it is so enjoyable. Some houses make it with ginger, cinnamon, cloves and lots of brown sugar, while others add red wine.
Chinn recommends playing with these spices to find the right blend for you. At Negril, he says the brew is spicy due to a one-to-one ratio of hibiscus to ginger with a touch of chili or allspice.
“But don’t go too far,” he warns. “Make sure you filter twice and wash the flowers well as they can get dirty. “
Once you have the flavor profile and sweetness you’re looking for, you can treat it as a base and add rum or wine if you want, he says. “A lot of times I leave it alcohol-free and then add an ounce of rum to my cup. “
“Our ancestors knew about the benefits of hibiscus, and knowledge of what this plant was and what it can do has traveled all the way to the Caribbean.” –Jackie Summers, Sorel Liqueur
It’s all part of what makes sorrel so special: from island to island, and even from house to house on each island, sorrel is an expression of the person who makes it, fully customizable. Like many dishes on a festive table, your family’s sorrel tastes different from another family’s version.
And it has to do with the many places that this red drink has touched throughout history. “It’s a great story of persistence,” says Summers. “There is a place in the culinary firmament where this drink belongs and I want to honor this story.”
Sorrel drink recipe
Think of this as a sorrel column to personalize to your taste and perhaps add to your favorite spirit. It’s called “bissap” in the book The climb by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn. This recipe makes two liters and will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Ingredients of sorrel drink
2 liters of water
2 cups dried sorrel (hibiscus) petals
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
½ cup) sugar
Instructions for sorrel drink
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the hibiscus and ginger and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 15 minutes. Filter through a fine mesh colander into a large heat-resistant container. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add 1 cup of ice and refrigerate until completely chilled. Serve over ice.
Extract of The climb by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolyn. Recipes with Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook. Copyright © 2020 by Marcus Samuelsson. Photographs by Angie Mosier. Used with permission from Voracious, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.