The challenge was the find or grow something in the garden, and use that to extract a natural yellow tint that could be used to make a drink. Turmeric would have been a natural choice, especially given that “turmeric lattes” and “golden milks” are all the rage. But I wanted a clear drink to match the others, not a milky one,and turmeric seemed the wrong taste for a cocktail (or mocktail) anyway. We considered others: marigolds, calendulas.. but none seemed possible or safe to drink or interesting enough.
Until a dawn of garden wandering brought me to my suddenly-so-large coral jasmine or parijat tree–which in Bengal is the beloved shiuli or shefali of worship and poetry alike, and in the North is harsingar. Tamilians also call it pavazha malli, or pearl jasmine. The ground beneath my tree was strewn with the night’s fallen blossoms ..
And I remembered a childhood in the company of this tree with the white petals and distinctive yellow-orange pedicel, whose scent would mark the arrival of dusk and end of evening outdoor play, and which needed only to be shaken slightly come day break for all its flowers to come showering down.
Botanically, parijat is nyctanthes arbor-tristis: the “tree of sorrow” for its blossoms wilt and brown in daytime. Indeed, there is a story of a princess named Parijathaka, who fell in love with the sun but was spurned. From the ashes of her unrequited love came the tree whose flowers would never again see the sun, but fall like soft tears with its first rays. A celestial tree from Indraloka, the heavenly realm of Indra, the plant was stolen by Krishna and cursed therefore never to bear fruit. Blossoms land in the homes of those whose hearts are devoted to Krishna, it is said.
The flowers and young leaves of the parijat are also edible, I knew already. Tamilians know the tree as a source of “naattu maruvatham” or “country” Siddha medicine, categorized among the “bitters.” In the state of my birth, Assam, the flowers are used in cookery. Leaves are ground and the juice used in the treatment of ailments like sciatica and arthritis. “Poor man’s saffron,” some called it–and used it to dye the orange robes of Buddhist mendicants.
And then it came to me: the orange pedicel of the coral jasmine was the “yellow” I’d been seeking. I lost no time in collecting the fallen flowers before the dogs found me out and marveled yet again at how the garden always kept answers like secrets to the questions I had, waiting patiently for me to come looking.
The rest was easy. I pinched off the pedicels of each flower …
… rinsed these and dropped the small pile into a little jam jar of hot water…
… And watched the liquid turn yellow. As easy as that.
I experimented with lime to test if acidity (or its absence) intensified the color, but it seemed to have little/no impact.
After a few days of early morning collection and extraction, I had my yellow in sufficient quantity to start experimenting with tastes.
The liquid carried a soft redolence, still. I asked my boys and crowdsourced taste ideas from friends. Sweta Biswal, whose invaluable compendium of traditional and sometimes-close-to-being-lost Odia dishes is an inspiration, offered that the scent of the tree was honeyed–so any drink made of it should taste likewise. Another friend recalled the herbs that go into chartreuse; still another threw me a curveball: “Rum, liqueur, ginger, lime and a hint of pepper and plum please.”
Oddly enough, that playfulness was what I most needed (sans the pepper and plum maybe). Just honey wasn’t enough, chartreuse reminded me that green tones do an intense yellow make, that a herbal tone wouldn’t be misplaced at all, and “rum, liqueur, ginger, lime” called to mind the natural affinities of honey–while reminding me of a bottle of South African honey liqueur that was waiting patiently to be used.
I got down to it. I wanted something that highlighted honey, but still had its own distinctive melding of flavors–without overly altering its luminous yellow.
I started with sweeteners. Honey clouded the drink. Sugar left it clear. Honey tasted better though, and was more true to the scents which lingered.
What spirits would lift the right tastes? Equal proportions of rum and honey liqueur, it turned out, enhanced the sweet complexities of honey-sugar intermingling. I used less sugar than normal to prepare a concentrate that could be stored–discovering, maybe not unsurprisingly, that there was hardly a difference in color anyway, between actual honey and my prepped concentrate.
We went ingredient-by-next-ingredient, sip-by-sip, adding dimensions of taste. (The boys got the versions without rum of liqueur, of course). Freshly squeezed ginger juice added bite. A bare squeeze of lime added zest. But what pulled the drink together and lifted it over the top was a most unlikely small dash of peppermint syrup: just that touch of herbal green tending towards chartreuse but not quite getting there.
But now we had too much sweetness! So I used just a little mint infusion the next time, and a flower or two to finish the drink with a touch of the bitters.
We were done, some of us a tad tipsy, and all of us ready for a second round.
It is hard to express quite how delightful these experiences and little journeys can be. Thanks to my boys and their playful prompts, I now have three primary color flower-colored syrups and four garden cocktails to offer any thirsty wayfarer who happens by.
And the drinks we’ve made from them, left-to-right: Vermillion Margaritas, Lavender Blues Vodka Fizzies, the Pondicherry Fling (a gin-pineapple cocktail)–and now the Honey mood coral jasmine cocktail.
With my love and thanks also to those whose ideas and comments and teases have found their ways into the tastes and names of these here four fine drinks.
- 1 part natural coral jasmine flower extract (see instructions on how to prepare this)
- 1/2 part sugar
- 10 ml coral jasmine syrup
- 10 ml honey liqueur*
- 10 ml rum*
- 1 tablespoon honey (or less, to taste)
- 7.5 ml peppermint tea (or infusion of peppermint leaves in hot water)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger, squeezed to extract just the juice
- squirt of lime
- *leave these out for a kid-friendly version
- To make the syrup: collect the coral jasmine blossoms over several days, pinch off the pedicels, rinse, and drop into just enough hot water to cover.
- Leave for a few hours, then strain out the pedicels and discard, storing the liquid.
- When you have enough extract to work with, measure out 1/2 part sugar to each part of extract. Combine on low heat until sugar is fully dissolved.
- Cool--bottle--store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, and fill with ice.
- Shake vigorously, and serve in chilled glasses with a few coral jasmine flowers thrown on top.