What is Hibiscus? For Starters, It’s Not Exactly a Flower

If you’ve ever had hibiscus tea, you’ve had zobo. In Nigeria, that’s what we call the calyx of the deep red, edible variety of hibiscus, the Hibiscus sabdariffa species. 

What is hibiscus?

Often—and erroneously—described as a flower, the hibiscus we cook with is actually a collection of sepals (known as a calyx), the part of a flowering plant that protects the bud and supports the petal once in bloom. Before the plant flowers, the calyx resembles a pointed bud, holding the seed pod, but it unfurls as the flowers push through the pod.

Where does hibiscus come from?

Likely native to West Africa, East Africa, Southeast Asia, or Northeastern India, hibiscus goes by many names: bissap in parts of West Africa; karkade in North Africa (specifically in Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan); rosela, rosella, grosella, and sorrel in Indonesia, Australia, and across the Caribbean and Latin America; mathi puli in Kerala; krachiap in Thailand; luo shen hua in China; and flor de Jamaica in Mexico and across North America.

While the deep red variety of hibiscus is the most common across the world, other colors exist, from beige to rose to yellow. One would expect the color differences to produce marked flavor differences, but that isn’t the case. The flavor is similar except that the lighter-colored varieties tend to be tarter and more sour, while the darker variants are fuller and more robust.

Hibiscus is the defining ingredient of Jamaican Christmas sorrel punch, where it’s paired with citrus, aromatics, spices, and, occasionally, rum. (The plant used to be available in the Caribbean only during that time of year, though it’s now harvested year-round.)

What does hibiscus taste like and what are some common ways to use it?

When I think of the flavor of zobo, I think of it as floral, tart, and sour, with notes of forest fruits. While it is edible fresh, it is most common to find it dried. You’ll often see it steeped in water to make tea or cooked into jams and jellies because it’s pectin-rich.

For drinks, you can enjoy it plain, sweetened, or unsweetened, or combine it with whole or ground spices (like cloves, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon); aromatics, like fresh or dried ginger; and with fruit juices and alcohol (think sangria). Most people sweeten hibiscus with sugar, honey, dates, fruit, and more. In Nigeria, sliced dried ginger, whole cloves, and fresh pineapple (skin, flesh, and core) are common additions.

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