Fragrant with warm notes of Ceylon cinnamon, pungent cloves, lacy fronds of mace, and shiny green bay leaves drawn from the tree in a pot bearing pink lights, the first sweet scent of Christmas dominated the air with the night.
It lay all over the house for hours after, like a tangy, irresistible bouquet, drawn from a pot full of sorrel petals accented with grated ginger, which I inhaled deeply, triggering a surge of such comforting memories with the Caribbean practice of preparing the refreshing tart drink every holiday season.
The smell of Christmas can vary according to where we come from and where we live now. Yet the soothing predictability of leaning over a simple glass of cold sorrel, infused from a batch before marrying the fruit my son bought as an early surprise, meant that we were, somehow, observing the protocols and precautions in a pandemic year to make it this far.
An intensely rich red wine, it gives its name to the darkest manifestation, “black sorrel,” the fruit has become an annual constant we have never been without.
The scientific title, “Hibiscus sabdariffa” indicates that it is a species of popular garden flower that is probably native to Africa, with some experts suggesting that the second word of the 17th century coin may be in Jamaican or even Turkish.
Equally confusing ethnobotanists point out that Sudan is the likely center of origin where it may have been domesticated about 6 000 years ago, first for its protein-rich oily seed and later for leaf and calyx production, while others suggest Southeast Asia, from north-eastern India to Malaysia.
The leaves are still used as a spicy version of spinach, tasting the famous Senegalese fish and rice dish “thieboudienne,” while in the Sahel, the fruit is commonly used to make sugary herbal teas. Young green roselle shoots, leaves and calories are also cooked, like a vegetable, in mucilaginous or chopped soups and added to sauces, flavored with oil, onions, dried fish and hot pepper , and eat them with tubers, cereal porridge or rice.
Vegetable varieties were introduced to India and America three centuries ago, with the Indians calling the variety we use “lal (red) ambadi.” Single strain leaves are mixed with green chillies, salt, garlic and chilli to prepare a spicy breakfast chutney served with “jowar” (sorghum) or “bajra” (millet) and “bhakri,” a flat bread much like ‘ r Guyanese and Trididian “sada” Roti. The most preferred variety in the region and found throughout the tropics, is called Guinea / Indian / and of course Jamaican / sorrel, but also known as roselle, Florida cranberry, rose de ‘Abyssinian, bush lemon, Natal roselle, Queensland Nigerian jelly, sour and zobo plant. Hibiscus sabdariffa’s completely wild plants have been collected from Angola to Ghana and Niger.
But the Caribbean country most associated with surrealism is still Jamaica, with many other Mexican and Latin American restaurants referring to the famous drink with one title saying, “hah-my-cah.” Hans Sloane, the British son of a colonial officer, who trained as a physician and botanist, would spend about 15 months on the island in the late 17th century looking for plants for new drugs. He collected around 800 specimens including sorrel during his travels in western India, currently held by the London Natural History Museum. In 1707 and 1725, Sloane published his luxurious illustrated two-volume History of Jamaica.
He said, “It’s planted in most gardens on this Island. The capsule leaves are used for making Tarts, Greens and Wines, for use in fevers and hot distempers, to calm heat and quench thirst. “
The Dutch physician and pioneer of tropical medicine, Jacobus Bontius who is best known for the four-volume work “De medicina Indorum” and his 1631 book “Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis” introduced the word “Orang Hutan” to Western languages. the plant’s culinary and medicinal uses, describing it as growing in Java and the surrounding islands.
He wrote, “The leaves have a sour taste and are used as a delight in fat and glutinous foods. It’s chilling; the Malayans, Bengalese and other Moors use it as a vegetable; . . . in high fever and delirium it is also used. “Bontius is described as growing in Java and the surrounding islands.
The earliest reference to the roselle, along with the felling, may be found in “Stirpium Historia,” by Flemish botanist M. de L’Obel, published in 1576, with similar references recorded to the variety of white-fruited roselle which comes from Barbados in 1750. The petals were already used in the manufacture of alcohol and wine making there.
Ongoing research including from the North Caribbean University (NCU) of Mandeville in Jamaica has identified key medicinal properties of the sorrel, especially as a potent antioxidant and a promising anticancer agent.
The findings were presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Cell Biology in 2009, the Jamaican Gleaner reported. The NCU partnered with Loma Linda University, an Adventist institution in California, with the study showing excluded oral and breast cancer cells.
A detailed doctoral dissertation submitted in 2013 to the University of Leeds School of Food Science and Nutrition, on the anthocyanins of “Hibiscus sabdariffa,” concluded that long-term consumption of sugary, sugar-free juices could help protect against cardiovascular disease. Anthocyanins are among the most important types of powerful plant flavonoids found in dark pigmented fruits and vegetables, with the name anthocyanin being a Greek word (antho) meaning flower and (kaynos) red or blue.
Long-favored in folk medicine, the positive effect of sorrel is thought to be due to the high content of beneficial phenols and antioxidant activity. The paper recommended drinking 35 ml concentrated sorghum juice or 250 ml diluted version daily as a kernel to protect against the development of high blood pressure, but warned that people with low blood pressure like me should drink it carefully because the hypotensive effect of the drink.
In this unprecedented year of a deadly pandemic, and with much uncertainty remaining including the likelihood that, in developing countries, we will not be able to get a vaccine early enough given all the greedy hoarding rich elsewhere, we may be able to seek reassurance in time, and the fact that many of us are still right and are not suffering from anosmia or loss of smell, which is being considered is a major symptom in a large proportion of people getting COVID-19. A recent University of Iowa study released this month suggested that anosmia results from the initial viral infection, and damage to a cell type that helps support the function of odor-detecting nearby sensory neurons. Most COVID patients restore their sense of smell, but some do not.
In the meantime, I’ll take a very deep breath of my fragrant drink, look into the night sky and raise my little glass of sorrel to the latest vaccine victory and hopefully another round of “Hibiscus sabdariffa” at Christmas.
ID sings “Who’s soo now?” as she looks disappointed at countries such as Canada, the United States of America, Great Britain and members of the European Union, which hold COVID-19 vaccine doses far in excess of their populations, as the poor nations strive to ensure any.