Saturday, May 16, 2015

Karkadè - The Drink of the Pharaohs

Many years ago I had a chance to visit Sudan for the first time. Back then the capitol city of Khartoum had only one good hotel. It was The Hilton on the White Nile which accommodated not only business people and the few tourists that made it there, but also important guests of the State. Colonel Gaddafi was visiting Sudan at that time and I had a pick at him and his female body guards while sipping hibiscus tea at the lobby lounge. It was an interesting sight, I must admit.

Khartoum had very few attractions at that time. On Fridays everybody went to the local market to watch the dervish dances and sip karkadè that was served with a ladle straight from a large bucket filled with ice and hibiscus tea. Most European visitors stayed clear of the bucket, I assure you. You could enjoy a "safe" karkadè in the hotel, though. This delicious hibiscus  tea which was served either hot or chilled, and it tasted a bit different from what hibiscus tea tasted like back home.      

Karkadè is also drunk in Egypt where its tradition supposedly goes back to the times of the pharaohs. The tea is made out of dark red calyces that form around the seed pods of flowers collected from a roselle shrub (Hibiscus sabdariffa). The plant is native to West Africa, but it also grows in many other parts of the world including Australia, China, Nepal, Mexico, and the Caribbean. 

The tea has a rather tart taste that is a bit similar to cranberry or tart cherry juice. To camouflage the tartness and make it more palatable, karkadè is often served with a lot of sugar. Unfortunately, the sweeter it is, the less it qualifies as a thirst quencher.

In Nigeria (at the Hilton hotel in Abuja, for instance) hibiscus tea is served chilled, with rock sugar, fresh ginger, cloves, and black pepper. It is supposed to improve blood circulation and aid digestion. It tastes great and combines the healing qualities of ginger, black pepper, cloves, and hibiscus. You can make your own by following a few simple steps. The amount of sugar, spices and hibiscus flowers can be adjusted to your personal liking. Experiment! It's fun.

  • 5 cups purified water
  • 1 inch fresh ginger root, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp black pepper, crushed
  • 1 tsp crushed cloves
  • 1 Tbsp rock sugar (use more or less, depending on your personal liking)
  • 1/2 cup died hibiscus flowers

  • In a large enough pot, bring water, spices and sugar to boil. Simmer for a few minutes and set aside to cool.
  • Place hibiscus flowers in a jar or a carafe. 
  • Using a strainer, pour the now cool water with spices into your chosen vessel. Mix well.
  • Place the now almost ready hibiscus drink in the fridge and let it sit for a few hours. This step will not only help to chill it well, but also to release the "essence" and the color of hibiscus flowers into your spicy liquid.  
  • Enjoy the drink in good company, with or without ice cubes. You can, of course, skip the cooling of the tea and have it warm, if you prefer. My concern is that heat destroys the vitamin C in hibiscus. Also, using too much sugar makes the drink less healthy. 

Northern Nigerians also prepare hibiscus tea with pineapple rind, and ginger. The drink is known as the Zobo drink.      

Hibiscus tea is known in many cultures where it is greatly appreciated for its health benefits. Hibiscus flowers are rich in the vitamin C and anthocynins that have the capacity to fight free radicals in the body and strengthen the immune system.  

Studies have demonstrated that karkadè may help fight hypertension since it contains compounds that act as the ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors. In fact, the effects of drinking hibiscus tea were similar to the effects of popular anti-hypertensive drugs. The tea also helped reduce the amount of sodium in blood without affecting the levels of potassium. More studies have to be conducted, but one thing is certain, unlike many drugs, hibiscus tea is well tolerated by patients with hypertension. 

To prepare a simple hibiscus infusion, rinse a handful of dried hibiscus calyces in running water and place them in a teapot. Bring four cups of purified water into a boiling point, then allow it to cool a bit. Pour the water into a teapot and steep the flowers for about five minutes. Strain the deep red liquid through a sieve and pour it into glasses. Add a little sugar, honey or liquid stevia and enjoy it warm, or chill it in the fridge. 

You can also place the hibiscus flowers in a jar and pour cold purified water. I use 1 heaping table spoon of dried flowers for each cup of water and keep the jar in the fridge. I allow at least one day for infusion to chill nicely and drink it with ice on hot days.

By Dominique Allmon

P.S. It is advised not to steep the flowers in hot water for more than ten minutes since the infusion will become bitter. Steeping hibiscus flowers in cold water does not turn the infusion bitter, but it will make it more acidic.

Dominique Allmon©2015


To learn more Hibiscus Tea and Hypertension please click here and here.

*Information in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease.