This was last year, when I attended a writing retreat on the shores of Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful and magical bodies of water on the planet. Encircled by lush green mountains, Mayan villages and cone shaped volcanos, my time there taught me how to up my storytelling game.
Then came the hibiscus.
The retreat provided lunch and snacks, and iced hibiscus tea, in a large silver pitcher with a matching carafe of sugar syrup at its side, was always on the table. Ruby red with a kick of tangy flavor, the drink comes from the dried flowers and leaves of the plant by the same name, and was the only cold tea offered.
As it turns out, hibiscus not only tastes great, but has a ton of health benefits, including helping to lower blood pressure; ease depression, and aid digestion.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with this tea.
Decades ago, in college, I knew it as Red Zinger from Celestial Seasonings, and drank it hot. Perhaps best known for the imaginative art work on its boxes, the company’s colorful drawings seemed to be in everyone’s pantry in the 1970s, especially if you were under 30 years old.
Still, I had no idea then that tea bags often sit in warehouses for years, which might be the reason that when I sipped Red Zinger, the taste was more of a suggestion of hibiscus than what I experienced in Guatemala. (Also, while this tea is mostly hibiscus, it has traces of peppermint, rose hips and orange peel.)
Now, just like the tea at the writing retreat, I drink my hibiscus cold.
To make it, I take out two, quart sized Mason jars from a kitchen cupboard (mine cost 50 cents each at Goodwill). Then I dump about four tablespoons of dried hibiscus into each container. (Hibiscus is sold at health food stores or sometimes, supermarkets with a large bulk section. It’s also cheap—about two cups are under five dollars, and yield about five large pitchers of tea.) Next, I fill the jars nearly to the top with cold water, secure the tops with tin foil, and put them in the refrigerator overnight.
The next morning, the liquid in those jars is that deep ruby color I’ve come to love. I retreive my biggest pitcher, which is plastic, chartreuse and seemingly indestructible, remove the lid and place a strainer on top. Then I carefully pour the contents of both jars in.
But I don’t get rid of the strainer with the now-wet hibiscus just yet.
That’s because I’m busy making sugar syrup, which is one cup of white sugar to one cup of water, mixed in a small saucepan over medium heat. Turn off the burner just before the water boils, making sure there are no visible grains
Then throw in a small handful of fresh, coarsely chopped herbs to the pan and stir. (Basil was the go-to herb in Guatemala, but rosemary and oregano and Italian parsley work, too.) There will be the very faintest essence of whatever herb was dropped in the syrup, which adds to the overall flavor profile of the tea. Cool a bit, then pour the syrup on top of the flowers still in the strainer. I also go back to my Mason jars now, and fill them with about one cup of water each, and pour that in the strainer, too.
Next, remove the strainer with the flowers and herbs, and stir well. My hibiscus tea is finally ready to drink, so I screw the lid to the pitcher back on. But often, I’ll add one-eighth of a teaspoon of almond or vanilla extract to the mix (other folks like orange slices or a cinnamon stick or two). Sometimes, if I’m really jonesing for a glass and can’t wait for the tea to cool, I’ll toss some ice in a cup and drink it immediately.
Because I like this tea so much, I do my best to always have dried hibiscus on hand.
But last month I used up my last little bit, and the store where I’ve always found it wasn’t expecting a shipment for at least another week.
My heart started to beat faster and my breathing became shallow. Luckily, no one seemed to notice as an employee guided me to an aisle with boxes of hibiscus tea bags.
I politely refused his suggestion.
It took me another week, and checking out another venue that had run out as well, but I finally scored at a third place in town. This time, I stocked up with three cups of dried hibiscus.
I don’t plan to run out again anytime soon.
How about you? What’s your favorite can’t-live-without-it beverage?