The Hidden Health Benefits of Hibiscus Flowers, According to an Expert
Hibiscus flowers aren't just a beautiful bloom to admire in warmer climates. The flower has been eaten and brewed into teas in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Central and South America for hundreds of years. The red hibiscus drink is popularly known by many names around the world. It’s called “bissap” in parts of West Africa, “sobolo” in Ghana, “sorrel” in the Caribbean, Florida cranberry in Florida, agua de Jamaica in Mexico, karkadé in Egypt, and Sudan.
There are many varieties of hibiscus, but the red flower, or roselle, has many health benefits like lowering blood pressure, stabilizing blood sugar levels and provide immunity support. There are also studies that suggest it may help boost liver health.
The Health Benefits of Hibiscus
In many parts of the world, people drink hibiscus tea and infusions as a refreshing beverage, hot or cold. I grew up having it as a cold drink, served on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, my parents’ hometown. I was told it has a calming, relaxing effect, and I’d drink it hot before bed sometimes. It’s also known to lower blood pressure and research shows that it has a positive effect on people with hypertension. Another study found that drinking hibiscus tea every day was linked to lower overall cholesterol.
Dr. Kimberley Sommerville, MD, and Masters of Clinical Nutrition uses hibiscus, or as it’s called in Jamaica, sorrel, in her work. “Sorrel is a household plant in Jamaica, generally used as a drink during our Christmas festivities, but now being used more often all year round.”
She says that “Personally I've had sorrel since childhood and it can be incorporated into normal diets like green and chamomile tea. It tastes great and its benefits for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure are an added bonus for patients”
The flower is packed with antioxidants. Dr. Sommerville tells me that, “The Northern Caribbean University has also done studies which notes the flavonoids in sorrel as a powerful compound that can potentially be used against free radicals and cancer cells.”
The flower is also high in vitamin C and a good source of iron, both of which aid in strengthening the immune system.
While it’s most commonly used as a beverage, the flower itself is also edible and can be cooked and eaten. It’s an incredibly versatile plant and can be used as a vegan taco filler, or cooked in curries like it is in parts of India. With its tart flavor, it’s an exciting ingredient and there are many ways to incorporate it into your diet.
7 Ways to Enjoy Hibiscus
1. Hot tea
Perhaps the easiest way to use hibiscus is drinking it as a hot tea. The fresh or dried flowers can be infused with hot water and drank with any optional sweetener. It’s also common to find hibiscus tea bags sold at most grocery stores, making them even more convenient to use.
Try this for an easy at-home recipe.
2. Iced tea
Taking the easiest method of making a hot tea one step further by cooling it in the fridge for a few hours is another way to enjoy hibiscus. This ruby-colored iced tea is incredibly refreshing on a warm day, especially with some added lemon/lime or some ginger. It makes a delicious and healthy substitute for juice or sodas. Make a big batch and refrigerate for up to a week, you’ll be able to have some anytime within a week.
Try this agua de Jamaica here.
Using hibiscus in cocktails is a delicious way to get nutritional benefits while indulging in an alcoholic beverage. The cranberry-like flavor also pairs really well with different spirits, like rum, mezcal, bourbon, and gin. Its bright red color makes a beautiful-looking drink, while its tartness is easily complemented with different citrus fruits or spices. You can even boil it down to make a cordial or a syrup from it, which can easily add a touch of depth and excitement to any cocktail.
Try this recipe for a mezcal, hibiscus and cilantro cocktail.
4. Make a “mock mulled-wine”
In the colder days, making a hot hibiscus brew with winder spices can make a delicious “mulled wine” recipe without the wine. The deep red color of the hibiscus will have you fooled, while the aromatic spices like cloves and cinnamon will have your home smelling deliciously cozy. The spicy flavors of mulled wine paired with the tartness of hibiscus, make for a nutrient-packed drink that will warm you from the inside. And if you miss the alcohol, go ahead and add some wine, it will work great. Hint: a dash of bourbon would also take this drink to the next level.
Try this recipe for hibiscus “mulled wine."
5. Taco filling
In parts of Mexico, tacos de Jamaica are popular and the technique of cooking hibiscus in your tacos is a game-changer for vegans. Hibiscus flowers are chewy but tender and easily pick up any flavor that you’re cooking with. The best thing is that it’s one process that produces two products- the flower “meat” and hibiscus tea.
Chill the tea in the fridge and use the flowers to make this recipe.
In Kerala, India, people make a curry using hibiscus flowers called Pulinkari. The petals are stewed in a sour tamarind-based sauce, that produces a deep red, healthy and flavorful dish. Finding out that you can stew hibiscus flowers and use them in curries opens up a world of possibilities for cooking with hibiscus.
Try this Keralan-style hibiscus dish called Pulinkari.
7. Jam and Relish
Using the flowers or the tea, you can easily make a jelly/jam or if you prefer a more savory route, try making a relish. Making a simple version with just sugar and water will get you a sweet and tart jam. Using this as a base, you can begin to play around. Include other florals or citrus to enhance the flavor. Adding some spices and jalapenos will turn it into an exciting condiment, as a side to your curry dish or with some bread.
Because of its cranberry-like taste, it’s also a popular choice at thanksgiving to use as “cranberry sauce.”
Try this chutney recipe as a stand-in for cranberry sauce.
Or go the sweet, floral route and make this hibiscus and rose jelly.
Another exciting use for hibiscus tea to transform that ruby liquid into ice cream or a refreshing sorbet. The deep red color lends itself to a beautifully rich-looking frozen dessert, with a tangy taste that even those without a sweet tooth will love.
For a creamy, vegan ice cream recipe, try this coconut and hibiscus ice cream.
For the hot days ahead, this ginger and hibiscus sorbet is sure to be a hit.
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