The Many Global Flavors of Hibiscus

Learning languages with The Global Language Network can help you know more about the interconnectedness of the world. For example, you might be familiar with the hibiscus flower, but did you know that you can eat and drink it? One way is by trying karkadeh/karkady/karkadé, which is a traditional Egyptian tea that is made from the hibiscus flower, hibiscus sabdariffa. Deeply crimson, this distinctive beverage is sweet and pleasant, taking you on a global journey in a cup. Served either hot or cold, karkadeh is a delightful refreshment that can be found throughout North Africa, whether in the cafés of Cairo or when shared hospitably with locals. It is sometimes served during the iftars of Ramadan as a way of breaking the fast throughout the Middle East, such as in Dubai. If you travel along the Nile to Upper Egypt, you will find a profusion of hibiscus plantations around Qena and Aswan as well as in Sudan.

Known as bissap or zobo in West Africa, hibiscus tea is very popular there. You may find it seasoned with mint or ginger. In Senegal, it is considered to be the national beverage. It is likewise consumed regularly in Nigeria. Gambian wonjo is enjoyed both daily and for special occasions. A similar tea is found throughout the Caribbean where it is known as sorrel, red sorrel or ponche de saril. Hibiscus is a popular flavor of agua fresca in Latin America where it is known widely as flor de Jamaica due to its association with the island nation. It was likely brought by slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean as a legacy of their homelands.

The hibiscus plant is also known as roselle and, in parts of India, the leaves are turned into chutney such as gongura chutney or pachadi. They are also prepared with lentils in a stew from Andhra Pradesh. You may find them served with a hearty breakfast such as in a dosa. Burmese cuisine features extensive use of the roselle plant in its cuisine. In Thailand, you might partake of roselle juice, known as nam krajieb/น้ำกระเจี๊ยบ, that is sweetened and poured over ice; it is sometimes made into a wine.

Beyond consumption, the hibiscus has other utilities and functions. It is of particular significance in eastern India where it is considered to be the sacred flower of Goddess Kali and images of the goddess often appear with the flower and the goddess in a unified form. The flower is often an offering to both Kali and Lord Ganesha in Hindu ceremonies. It is symbolic of the life force within all of us. You can read more about the deep significance of this relationship between Kali and the hibiscus here.

More whimsically, the hibiscus serves a playful purpose in the Philippines. Filipino children use the juice of the hibiscus plant, called gumamela, for blowing bubbles. With a simple recipe, you can turn this “bubble flower” into entertainment. Grind them up, add water and perhaps sugar for durability then use a straw or papaya stalk to generate the bubbles.

There are many ways in which you might encounter this pleasant ingredient throughout the world. Study a language with The Global Language Network to open up your exploration of the world’s many vibrant and inventive cultures. There are many surprises to discover.

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