Since I was first allowed into the kitchen at four years old, I’ve been obsessed with sorrel. Not the leafy, spinach-like herb, but rather the species of hibiscus used to make the Jamaican Christmas drink of the same name, called bissap in parts of West Africa and flor de Jamaica in Latin America. At Christmastime, I’d stand on a step stool and watch as my mother would make what seemed to be cauldrons upon cauldrons of sorrel, redolent with ginger, cloves, dried orange peel, and pimento (allspice berries). That was the only time of year when we’d buy white sugar, to sweeten the sorrel, since brown sugar sometimes imparts a molasses flavor that can detract from sorrel’s subtle notes. I wasn’t allowed to have soda as a child, so this was my annual sugary beverage treat. As I got older, I was permitted to partake in batches that had been allowed to ferment, and some that had been laced with overproof rum.
Enid Donaldson was one of the doyennes of Jamaican cuisine, and every Jamaican chef of note has a copy of her cookbook, The Real Taste of Jamaica. In the first edition, she says of sorrel: “No Jamaican Christmas is complete without bottles of the red drink brewed with rum and ginger.” What is fascinating is that either dried or fresh sorrel can be used to make the drink, though these yield different intensities and top notes. Dried sorrel produces a cranberry-red punch that is herbaceous and full of flavor; think of it as a strong hibiscus iced tea. Fresh sorrel is mouth-puckeringly tart, delicately perfumed, and ideal for fermenting. Both forms create a refreshing drink.
Fresh sorrel is seasonal and is mainly available—you guessed it—around the holiday season. Come late November, market stalls in Jamaica struggle under the weight of bulbs of sorrel. Mounds of plump ruby calyces seem to compete with the island’s mountain ranges, and vendors dart between cars paused at stoplights shouting “Fresh sorrel!” Local beverage manufacturers like Tru-Juice cultivate sorrel all year round to keep grocery store shelves permanently stocked with bottled versions of the stuff. Full disclosure: Homemade versions are superior.
And how can a plant, first introduced to Jamaica in the 18th century, have such a grip on the island’s identity? As with most aspects of Jamaica’s culinary heritage, sorrel originated in West African foodways. In the same way “red drink” is an integral part of the African American experience, sorrel preserves culture. It is a nod to the red-skinned kola nut that made the trip across the Middle Passage with enslaved West Africans. Freed people used red foods and beverages to celebrate Emancipation; African Americans use them to commemorate Juneteenth each year. Sorrel is “a prized ingredient in the foodways of the African diaspora, where it lends a red hue to celebratory drinks,” said Atlanta chef and fellow Food52 contributor Briana Riddock. The color is symbolic of the blood shed by enslaved Africans and the collective resiliency of Black people.
According to food historian Michael W. Twitty, sorrel connected the enslaved to the lives they were forced to leave behind: “Having the same plant in the tropical Americas was a semblance of hope,” he told Serious Eats.
When I lived in Toronto, I was rarely homesick, except at Christmas. For the first few years, I adopted Canadian traditions in an attempt to fit in after being derided by an ex for being “too much of an immigrant.” My first Christmas after leaving that relationship, I headed to Little Jamaica, bought some dried sorrel, and brewed a batch. The first sip was a warm embrace that whispered, “Welcome home.” I shared it some with Caribbean friends, and when I heard, “This is great! But it’s different from how we make it in Trinidad,” I wasn’t upset. I was intrigued.
Depending on where you are in the Caribbean, in addition to the ginger, sorrel may be brewed with cinnamon sticks, star anise, or black peppercorns. In the same way, the diaspora will never settle the great curry chicken vs. chicken curry debate. We embrace how we approach one ingredient differently. However, what is universally agreed upon is that the longer you let sorrel steep, the more intense the flavor gets.
Last week my mom bought three pounds of farm-fresh sorrel. Dad took a break from doing Sudoku to remove the seeds and trim the bit of stem left from harvesting. It immediately felt like Christmas without the need for twinkling lights, a tinsel-trimmed tree, or Mariah Carey. Whether abroad or at home in the Caribbean, sorrel is a hallmark of a Jamaican Christmas. And whether it’s brewed with orange peel, allowed to ferment, or given a boost with overproof rum, sorrel is more than just a holiday punch. It’s a beverage steeped in history.
Easy Jamaican Sorrel
- 9 cups water
- 3 cups dried sorrel (hibiscus)
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup overproof rum
- 1 cup fortified wine (Jamaicans use Red Label Wine, but feel free to use vermouth)
- 12 cloves
- 4 tablespoons white rice
- 6 pimento (dried allspice) berries
- 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and smashed
- Peel of one orange
Bring the water to a boil in a stockpot. Add all the ingredients, except the rice and alcohol, remove from the heat, and cover. Set aside for 24 hours. Strain, add the alcohol, and add more sugar, if desired. Divide the liquid among four mason jars and add a tablespoon of rice to each (to speed up fermentation). Seal, place in a cool dark place, and allow to ferment for around 3 days before serving. Once opened, refrigerate.