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For Juneteenth, this hibiscus red drink is steeped in history

Sorrel (Caribbean Red Drink).  (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)
Sorrel (Caribbean Red Drink). (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)
By Sunyatta Amen Washington Post

Food and drink play an essential role in independence celebrations the world over. For many Black Americans, Independence Day is celebrated on June 19, or “Juneteenth” – the day in 1865 when residents of Galveston, Texas, learned that slavery in the United States had been abolished, two months after the end of the Civil War and 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Today’s Juneteenth celebrations take place everywhere: backyards, parks, as well as at large festivals and parades. And Congress finally got in on the action last year, declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Juneteenth gatherings customarily feature red foods, which are used to symbolize resilience and joy. Delectable strawberry pie, barbecue, red rice, watermelon, hot sauce, red velvet cake and red sausages on the grill are all abundant. But no celebration would ever be complete without Red Drink.

This beloved drink is a modern take on traditional African hibiscus ginger tea, and is often said to revitalize the mind, body and soul. In fact, the color red is often associated with ancestral reverence in West African traditions. This ubiquitous elixir remains popular as it links our present to our past through food memories.

Red Drink is known by many names throughout Africa, and the Diaspora: bissap in Senegal, sorrel in the Caribbean, rosella in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, karkade in Egypt, agua fresca de jamaica in Central America, and vinagreira in Brazil.

Hibiscus plants, along with other native African botanicals such as ginger and spices, were transported alongside human cargo in the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout enslavement in the Americas, Red Drink was seen as a healing beverage used to cool overheated bodies working on plantations. Hibiscus was also highly prized at that time for its ability to relieve sudden pain, reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure exacerbated by stressful conditions. Combined with the warmth of ginger and the pluckiness of traditional African spices, the bitter and sweet flavors of Red Drink were a liquid love letter in remembrance of a distant homeland. If you’ve ever tasted a “zinger” tea, that’s it – you’ve tasted West Africa.

Over the last 10 years or so, traditional hibiscus iced teas have been gaining in popularity. This is largely an effect of Jamaican restaurants popularizing sorrel, and thereby returning this healthful beverage to many people of African descent living all over North America. This shift is also seen as a form of resistance to food deserts and the food industry’s history of marketing unhealthful drinks – such as Kool-Aid, “Quarter Water,” Chubby Reggae Red Soda, Hawaiian Punch and similar sweet, red-dyed drinks – to the Black community. (Why did the Kool-Aid Man have to sound like Louis Armstrong?)

Choosing hibiscus teas over artificial, syrupy, preservation-laden knockoffs is an easy sell. The attractive ruby jewel-tone of Red Drink is dazzling. When sweetened with agave or raw sugar, its crisp tartness shines through, making it the perfect palate-cleansing complement to rich cookout spreads.

A quick word of caution: Hibiscus flowers were traditionally used to dye fabrics – and they still work! So protect those light-colored fabrics and surfaces.

We can all incorporate this delicious sip of soul food into our next summer gathering. It’s a refreshing way to celebrate and reflect on the day when all Americans knew they were finally free.

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Sunyatta Amen is a fifth-generation master herbalist and the owner of Calabash Tea & Tonic in Washington, D.C.

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Sorrel (Caribbean Red Drink)

Active time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 40 minutes, including 15 minutes steeping and 1 hour cooling time

8 to 12 servings (makes 1 gallon)

Red Drink or Sorrel is a traditional tart, sweet and gingery beverage served on Juneteenth. It is made with the roselle hibiscus flower, which is typically cultivated not for its beauty, but for its tart, cranberry-like flavor. This is not the same as the large-flowered variety found in many gardens. D.C. herbalist Sunyatta Amen, who created this recipe, recommends whole spices, with some dried options, but cautions not to use powdered versions of these ingredients. To sweeten, she says to avoid honey, which can dominate, but instead use raw cane juice, turbinado raw sugar or agave. Always stir well before serving. “We garnish with a sprig of gently rubbed mojito mint or African Blue Basil [which you can find in gardens or gardening shops] leaves to honor the ancestors that have gone before us,” she said. The spicy drink can be served hot or cold.

Ingredients:

1 gallon water

1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) dried roselle hibiscus flowers, cut or whole, or 1 cup fresh roselle flowers

6 whole allspice, folded in parchment paper and gently crushed by tapping with a heavy bottle or knife handle

5 whole cloves

3 green cardamom pods, folded in parchment paper and gently crushed by tapping with a heavy bottle or knife handle

1/4 teaspoon green cardamom seeds

1 whole star anise, broken, or 11 whole fennel seeds

One (1/2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger or 1/4 teaspoon dried ginger

1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon whole coriander seeds

Dash of crushed red pepper flakes

Fresh raw cane juice, turbinado raw sugar or agave, optional, to taste

Fresh mint sprigs, preferably mojito or fresh basil leaves, preferably African Blue Basil or Thai, to serve (optional)

Directions:

In a large pot over high heat, bring the water to a vigorous boil. Add the hibiscus flowers, allspice, cloves, cardamom pods and seeds, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, coriander and pepper flakes. Stir and bring back to a rolling boil for 15 minutes. The liquid will reduce a bit.

Remove from the heat, cover and let steep for at least 15 and up to 30 minutes. The longer the drink steeps, the deeper red and more flavorful it will become. Stir well and strain the drink through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-gallon pitcher.

While the drink is still warm, add fresh raw cane juice, turbinado raw sugar or agave, if using, to taste, stirring until it is well blended or dissolved. (The amount of sweetener will vary depending on the type and your taste; start with a little and taste until it’s to your liking.)

Refrigerate until well chilled, if serving cold, at least 1 hour. Stir well before serving, and pour into ice-filled Mason jars or glasses. Garnish with mint sprigs, basil or African Blue Basil, if using. The drink also can be served hot, if preferred.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Where to buy: Roselle hibiscus flowers can be found at tea shops, in Asian, Caribbean, Latin and health food markets, and online. African Blue Basil leaves can be found in home gardens or gardening shops.

From herbalist Sunyatta Amen, owner of Calabash Tea & Tonic in Washington, D.C.

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