Jamaica: The Summer Drink

As the days of summer grow long and heat starts to set in, I begin to crave my favorite summer drink: Jamaica. If you live in San Diego, chances are you’ve had it. It’s the syrupy, sickly sweet hibiscus tea drink they sell next to the Horchata at Mexican restaurants. Or maybe you’ve stumbled across the rare joint that makes it fresh and you know what an amazing drink it can be. Sweet, tart, refreshing, and incredibly delicious. If you’re really nifty you can make your own; half a gallon for less than $2.

Jamaica is luscious dark red-purple and is often labelled hibiscus tea. The color and name once fooled me into thinking I could dry red hibiscus flower from my garden to make the tea. I was wrong. The garden variety red hibiscus is typically Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Jamaica is made from Hibiscus sabdariffa, a.k.a. roselle or Jamaican sorrel. And it’s not the flower you’re eating, but the calyx. The calyx is the fleshy bit beneath the flower, sometimes called the bud, the hip, or the fruit. This is the head that remains after the flower petals fall off and where the seeds develop. Garden variety hibiscus has green calyces, but in h. sabdariffa they’re red.

Jamaica has a variety of edible applications: used for red dye in Germany and jams in Australia. It’s high in Vitamin C, is believed to have antihypertensive properties, and is important in some folk medicine. But its principal importance in in making a delicious drink. Across Africa, the Caribbean, and South and Central America it’s most common use is in making tea.

Making Jamaica is easy once you’ve got your hands on the dried flowers. The recipe is simplicity itself:
2 cups dried Jamaica flowers
6 cups cold water
3/4 cup sugar
2-3 more cups water and 1/4 cup more sugar to taste

Put 6 cups of water, 3/4 cup of sugar, and the Jamaica flowers in a large non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil for 1 minute, then turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for 2 hours. After steeping, pour the mix through a fine sieve and taste. Probably it’s a bit too strong and a bit too tart. Add the extra sugar and water, tasting at each step, until you get the perfect flavor.

The hard part of Jamaica is finding a reliable source for the flowers. Henry’s and People’s sell them in the bulk spice department. There is a ground-up version in tea bags that can sometimes be found in the foreign food section of regular grocery stores. Both these options are a bit too expensive. The best way is to find them in is in little baggies at roadside fruit markets. I get mine at the fruit stand off the 76 East near Pala, less than $2 for a 2 cup bag.

You can also try to grow it yourself. I searched all over town for a live plant, and had one nurser promise to get me one for $30. Instead I turned to Horizon Herbs, which sells all manner of rare stuff. The plant is an annual (probably not worth $30) but is self-pollinating. If you can manage one mature fruit you’ll get another year’s worth of seeds and then some.

This is my second year attempting to farm my own. Last summer the dearth of sunshine hampered all sun-loving plants, including my Jamaica and tomatoes. The Jamaica yielded only a handful of flowers, not enough to even warrant a harvest. This year I have my seedling in the ground, slowly making progress. We’ll see.

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