One of the special things about visiting Mexico is their consistency: stellar customer service, food, cocktails and street treats. And agua de Jamiaca or hibiscus tea water, of course. There’s a story of how I became friendly with the fresh water drink.
Every time we’ve enjoyed a stay at a 4 or 5 star resort in Mexico, I’ve made it a point to take gym clothes to work out. Have you seen the spread at some of these resorts? All decked out, fine Mexican men walking around in muscle shirts, great music mixes and lots of apples. One gym that sticks out the most was in Neuvo Vallarta, about 3 years ago. The entrance to the gym was bordered by cascading water and big rock formations. Once we entered (sis tag-teamed), the sweet incense took over. None of the funky junk smell that usually permeates those facilities. But what jumped at me as I walked into the main free weight salon was a huge glass dispenser filled with a ruby red drink. I was so confused. Juice servings at the gym? Next to it was a water dispenser but the idea of what I thought was a super sweet juice threw me off. I’m there to get my sweat on and burn calories from the massive amounts of guac — not drink frivolous juice.
To my sweet surprise it was agua de Jamaica. There, hibiscus tea is like Coke to Americans. It’s everywhere, cheap and a national staple. I was delighted to sip on the tart water between excercise sets or cardio workouts. Forget the water. The red stuff was good, a bit tangy and refrescante.
I quickly realized the drink wasn’t new to my palate. West Indians, mostly Jamaicans have the same drink called sorrel! Some of my family (my Jamaican side) has it by gallons at every small or large party. It’s a very common drink in the Caribbean as well. Next to natural ginger beer, it’s consumed the most and wiped out before you can ask for a 4th cup. The main difference in preparation is that sorrel is sweeter, bolder and sometimes spiked with rum; exactly how I’d enjoy it.
I hit up a few street markets during that visit to Mexico to find a hefty bag of the loose flower buds and other goodies. I came across vendors selling small bags for cheap and scooped up a couple. I’m talking about .80-$1.00 for a bag containing about 2.5 cups. It hit me that I had also bought some in Trinidad one year prior and that bag was still sitting on the top shelf of my Atlanta kitchen cupboard. Trini’s drink it a lot, too, hence it’s availability anywhere you shop.
I’ve been back to Mexico 3 times since that Nuevo Vallarta trip and have bought more hibiscus. I finally made some at home and dubbed it my “gym drink.”
Yesterday was one of those days where the fridge offered absolutely nothing for my buds. The standard stuff and my dad’s high pulp orange juice was not attractive. It was hot, I was in physical pain and needed something that would relax my mood and make me feel happy. Bright drinks or food can do that to you. I went straight for my last stash of hibiscus and conjured up a new recipe.
This is what I came up and drank 4 wine glasses worth before calling it a night. It’s pretty, isn’t it?!
A few notes. Hibiscus tea, made from the calyces of the hibiscus flower, tastes much like cranberry juice once brewed and chilled. It’s kind of tart so you have to offset that with some really good sugar. Traditionally, piloncillo, a cone of brown sugar from Mexico, is used. Our local international market was out so I used panela, a round Columbian version. It was just as good. I’m not into really sweet drinks, so my version is probably a tad bit more bitter than what you’d enjoy on the streets of Jalisco or your friendly neighbor’s house, so just add a bit more of that brown sugar or refined white. I also added some ginger to give it a twist. That worked marvelously. Ultimately, the drink has aromas of fall and Holiday moods but it works year round. Especially when it’s hod and humid out.
You can find bags of Jamaica leaves in any International or Latin market near you. Or, just go to Mexico and bring some pounds back. A tightly packed bag will keep at least two years. I know.