Latin name: Hibiscus sabdariffa
Other names: ambadi, gongura, Asam susar, Jamaica sorrel, red sorrel, Indian sorrel
Uses: vegetable, pickles and ferments, tea, jam, coloring agent
If you’ve ever had hibiscus tea, you may be surprised to learn that what you’re drinking isn’t the showy ornamental flower so popular in gardens, but more likely this flower’s more utilitarian relative, Hibiscus sabdariffa. Roselle leaves grow by the dozen on tall, slender stems. Its creamy yellow flowers are encased in a deep red calyx, which matures into a plump seed pod. Almost every part of the roselle is harvestable. The tart calyxes are used in everything from fresh chutneys to jellies, and the oil-rich seeds are used as food and medicine.
Why is roselle healthy?
Roselle is used in many folk medicines. In African countries and India, roselle is used for sore throats, gut cleansing, and healing wounds. Ayurveda prescribes roselle extracts as a heart and nerve tonic. The plant is rich in vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and potent antioxidants that help fight free radicals and prevent premature aging. Studies confirm that the leaves and calyx have cholesterol- and insulin resistance-lowering properties, while the seeds have powerful antimicrobial compounds.
What does roselle taste like?
Roselle imparts a tart, slightly acidic, pickle-like taste to food. Tender, lighter-colored leaves are mildly tangy, while mature leaves are sharper, even fibrous or bitter. The leaves have an earthy undertone while the calyx is sometimes compared to cranberries.
Where does roselle grow?
Like other hibiscus plants, roselle is likely native to Africa. It is believed to have traveled to the Americas by the 16th century and then to Asia. It is now grown in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. It also grows extensively in the northeast and southern parts of India.
How do I prepare roselle and what do I pair it with?
While often overlooked as a humble leaf, roselle’s tangy flavor means that it holds its own in diverse lentil, vegetable, and meat dishes. The leaves must be plucked and separated from the stalk and petioles, as these tend to be tough and stringy. When the leaves come in contact with heat, salt, and water, they shrivel and slowly turn slimy, but gradually lose stickiness.
Roselle leaves are used in a variety of ways in South India. They also pair particularly well with fish in various cuisines of Northeast India. In parts of Africa, the leaves are used in stews, while flowers are infused to make herbal tea. In East Africa, a mix of vegetables and beans wrapped in roselle leaves can form a meal. Yoruba meals in Western Africa are washed down with sweet roselle juice. The leaves and calyxes can be used in salads, while the latter may be used to make jams, jellies, wine, or sweet fillings.
When a fabric shortage during the Second World War led to increased interest in alternate and synthetic fibers, roselle was one of the plants explored as a major source of raw material.