That which we call a Roselle
It's roselle season in Pondicherry.
The beautiful little roselle is neither flower nor fruit, but the calyx of a wild hibiscus: the Hibiscus sabdariffa. Its origins trace back to North Africa and Australia, from where it traveled in the hands of slaves, slave-traders, traders, and other travellers first to the Caribbean and Central America–and Florida, where it was known as the “Florida cranberry”–and later to California and Hawaii.
In Mexico, and perhaps elsewhere in Central and South America, it’s a red sorrel sourced from Jamaica, the stuff of which “agua de Flor de Jamaica” or simply “agua de Jamaica” is made. In Arabic it’s the karkady (كركديه)–of which the hibiscus tea served in North Africa is brewed. In East Africa, it’s (one assumes in parts outside of Sudan) as “Sudanese tea.” In West Africa, it’s known variously as bissap, wonjo (Gambia), zobo (Nigeria, where the white sorrel variety is known, too) To the Spanish, it is quimbombe chino. The Dutch (who came across the roselle in Suriname) called it zuring—sorrel again, but invoking zuur, or its sourness. To the French it was once the oseille rouge, though now the North African name predominates: it’s karkady in French and karkadé to the Swiss as well.
Farther Eastward, a host of other names proliferate: the roselle is belchanda to the Nepalese, tengamora to the Assamese (mwitha to the Assamese Bodo tribal communities), chukor (চুকর) in to Bengalis, gongura to Andhras, pundi to Kannadigas, ambadi to Maharashtrians, mathipuli to Keralites; it is chin baung in Burma, kra jiab daeng (กระเจี๊ยบแดง) in Thailand, som phor dee (ສົ້ມ ພໍດີ) in Laos. To the Malays it’s asam belanda (sourced from Assam, does one presume?); to the Chinese, luo shen hua (洛神花). [There might be some confusion in these names between the red and the white sorrel, Hibiscus cannabinus, whose leaves are, for example, more commonly known as "gongura" in Andhra Pradesh. Taste-wise, the difference may be marginal. Both species are fibre-yielding and cultivated in place of jute, giving them the name "Deccan hemp."]
Were its names not variety enough, the wholly edible roselle plant is pressed still further for its medicinal values. Roselles are vitamin C-rich, and teas made from dried calyces are widely believed to have anti-hypertensive properties. (My boys eat the calyces straight from the plants, and seem to relish their tart juciness–releiving both their stresses and mine). John Feeney tells us that the roselle’s
leaves, seeds and calyces are used in Guinea as a diuretic and as a sedative. In Burma, the seeds are used as an aphrodisiac, in Taiwan as a laxative. In the Philippines the bitter root is roasted, skinned and eaten to stimulate the appetite. In Angola, the heated leaves, which produce a thick juice like Aloe vera, are used as a poultice to speed the healing of wounds. In several countries it is a folk remedy for certain cancers. Sudanese herbalists believe that karkady lowers blood pressure—and western scientists have confirmed the claim, identifying a glucoside, hibiscin, as the agent. Cairo doctors invariably prescribe drinking two glasses of karkady a day, along with other medication, for their hypertensive patients.
In the early 1960′s, when the world awoke to the dangers of some synthetic food dyes, karkady became a popular natural coloring agent for many drinks and foods, and even for pink and red meats. These days much of the karkady used for coloring is supplied by Senegal, where the dried calyces are pressed into 80-kilogram (175-lb) balls for shipment to pharmaceutical and food manufacturers in Europe.
Here, in Pondicherry, the little roselle is the secret ingredient of what our children know and drink to cool down their dusty selves all through the summer sear as “power syrup”–”power” being the spiritual significance assigned by The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram to so many hibiscus varieties, though she was much more finely specific in her associations than the common “power syrup” designation would indicate. Flower syrups are common in Pondicherry and Auroville, and many take the Mother’s significance as their own names–so it is possible to walk into the Auroville Visitor Center or any other of its restaurants and order a tall, cool drink of lavender-hued “Radha’s Consciousness” (made from blue pea flowers I’ve known all my life as shanku pushpam) topped up with soda. And in that, for the price of just over a dollar, taste something of Radha’s love for the divine cowherd Krishna, in Brindavanam of myth and lore.
I make no such promises to elevated consciousness in this post, though I willingly submit to the power, this-or-other-worldly, of the hardy, lovely little roselle.
The other lovely thing about the roselle: it’s not to be found at your regular grocers. Fiesta in Houston always had packet-fulls of the larger flor de Jamaica, dried, but here one has to go foraging for the fresh stuff. And we didn’t have to go far before we found enough for several batches of jam, jelly, and syrup.
We chutneyed the leaves (into what the Andhras call gongura pachadi or chutney) and added the greens (locally known by the generic term “puliccha keerai,” or sour greens, owing again to their tartness) to dals–but those are stories for other days.
Lots of lovely Pondicherry ladies make roselle syrups in small home-based businesses–guarding their recipes and methods closely. Not being one to respect proprietary anything when the common good is involved–and for me the wild, adaptable roselle is metonym for the common good–I offer an illustrated version of the jelly recipe below. For a jam, you’ll want to follow all the same steps, except you’ll keep the calyces in rather than straining them out. They do add a lovely texture to the jam. For a syrup, you’ll just not worry about the wrinkle test, and just stop cooking when the liquid barely turns syrupy. Bottle, store refrigerated, and top up with cool water, ice or soda for a quick and easy “power” drink.
Other ideas: re-warm the jam and swirl through ice-cream. Or spread it on top of a warm cheesecake for a truly stunning contrast of color, texture, and taste.
[Click on the graphic to view higher-res, printable images]