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The Unfortunate Plight Of Life-Saving Hibiscus Tea In The US

So, when is it hibiscus tea’s turn? That beautifully tart, bright crimson tea has been popular for hundreds of years all over the rest of the world, where it goes by many names. In the US it hasn’t become trendy like chai or matcha or even boba tea (which is inexplicably everywhere for something that’s like drinking standard black milk tea that a giant frog has laid eggs in). Hibiscus tea is a long-standing cultural staple in social settings around the world, but not here for some reason.

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Credit: cyclonebill , via Wikimedia Commons

One fan said it best in his extensive essay about the drink:

As a ravishing bright red drink, as a folk remedy, as a pharmaceutical aid and commercial coloring agent, [hibiscus] is surely one of the Earth’s “wonder plants,” a gift of God that seems almost a remnant of the Garden of Eden. What more can you ask of a single plant?

What more can you ask? Well, I suppose any of the following reasons could explain why it’s not more popular in the US:

It’s Called “Hibiscus”

The Celestial Seasonings version, named back in the ’70s, is called Red Zinger. Elsewhere in the US it’s relegated to novelty drinks whose names contain words like “cooler” and “splash” — and that’s when you can find it at all. “Red Zinger” is actually probably slightly better than “hibiscus tea” for a mass market, but neither holds a candle to the South American agua de flor de Jamaica, the Egyptian karkady, the Australian rosella, or the Jamaican sorrel. In Senegal it’s called bissap, which is a bit less poetic in American English phonology, but still has a certain dignity about it that “hibiscus” just isn’t capable of. It’s all the same stuff, but what it’s called matters.

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Credit: Celestial Seasonings

Our name for it is easily the worst, and our country is where it’s least popular. Coincidence? “Hibiscus” sounds variously like a really phlegmy disease, an event that was in the original Olympics but was banned over human rights concerns, part of an insect, the sound I make when I sneeze, an off-brand car your dad insisted on driving you to school in, or a race of evil beings from Lord of the Rings.

It’s Too Healthy

A lot of what you hear about hibiscus tea in the States is centered on its various health benefits, which sounds like it would make the drink more attractive, but only theoretically. Hibiscus tea has the ability to potentially reduce high blood pressure, sure, but it’s not a fad diet or get-thin-quick miracle, which means it might as well be Centrum capsules. Its true health effects are still being studied, but in addition to the blood pressure benefits, proponents claim it aids in lowering cholesterol, which hasn’t been proven scientifically, but hey, it definitely doesn’t raise cholesterol, so there’s that. It’s also definitely got antioxidants, which we all know are great for us, at least at the moment.

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Credit: T.K. Naliaka, via Wikimedia Commons

In the US, once something has been labeled healthy, it’s tough to gain the kind of popularity you need to become a real cultural presence. We prefer to love something and then later find out it’s healthy (e.g., coffee, wine, red meat, chocolate, and all the other things that swing in and out of the “good for you” category every other year).

It’s Caffeine-Free

You will find a drink with hibiscus tea in it at Starbucks, but its lack of caffeine means it will never be a substitute for your morning latte, and if you want one you’re going to have to actually say the words “Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher” to another human, so that’s strike two. Around the globe, hibiscus tea over ice with sugar added is a summer drink, a real thirst-quencher and pick-me-up, but without the caffeine. In Thai cities you can buy it on every corner, and cities all over the world, from North Africa to Latin America, have a similar story. In Europe the tea is also ubiquitous, and it’s often served hot. Other places, the temperature depends on the time of year.

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Credit: Hitomifox, via Wikimedia Commons

Does this sound familiar? It’s a drink of the people, an everyday beverage for any season that’s affordable and delicious, much like what coffee has become in the US (though whether that’s affordable depends on how you take your coffee, but the basic ingredient itself is very inexpensive). One of the main differences is that deliciously addictive caffeine, which other countries also have and drink plenty of. We’re just so hooked on the buzz that no drink without caffeine is going to challenge coffee’s dominance in the US. But in other countries, not only is hibiscus tea on every corner, it’s also often a larger social touchstone: In Egypt it’s used to toast at weddings, and it’s the national drink of Senegal. For many other cultures, presumably, meeting for a hibiscus tea is their “Let’s grab coffee.”

It’s Not a Popular Mixer

So no caffeine … if it doesn’t get you drunk or go well on cereal, maybe it’s not such a surprise that this drink hasn’t caught on. Yet recipes abound for hibiscus tea cocktails online. Its tart fruity flavor, compared often to cranberry, sounds like the perfect mixer for vodka, tequila, or maybe gin. Other countries have found boozy uses: In Jamaica it’s steeped with ginger, clove, and cinnamon and served with rum, which sounds awesome. There, it’s a traditional Christmas drink. In some parts of the Indo-Pacific hibiscus is made into wine.

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So then, one simple solution could change how popular hibiscus tea is in the US: a Hibiscus Red Bull vodka cocktail. Now we’ve got a popular caffeinated beverage that gets you drunk, and suddenly hibiscus tea is on the map. That, or …

Oprah Hasn’t Done an Entire Episode About It

This is self-explanatory.

 

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Hit-Or-Miss

9 Awesome Foods from Black Cultures You Need to Know

Yes, black cultures. The only universally shared experience of being black is the oppression associated with it. A multitude of diverse cultures thrive in spite of the obstacles thrown their way and in no place is this more evident than in their cuisines.

Here are some foods either originally cultivated by black people or that emerged from slave trades to embed themselves in these specific cultures.

Watermelon

watermelon

OK, let’s get this out of the way. Although watermelon has been stitched into negative narratives about black people, the fruit is rooted in African heritage. Originating in southern Africa, watermelons became domesticated farther north on the continent when extreme desertification hit Saharan Africa. Often used as a canteen of sorts in tropical regions, watermelons have been given many uses from jam to meal made of ground seeds.

Soupikandia & Okra

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Deeply embedded in southern American Creole culture is the spicy goodness that is gumbo. Many of the dish’s great qualities are attributed to French influences despite the majority of the cuisine stemming from African and Native American dishes. Gombo is the French word for okra, derived from the Luba (a Congo tribe) word ngombo. Slaves brought the vegetable to America and it acts as thickening agent in most versions of gumbo (if you’re not using okra, I have no idea why you’re calling it gumbo) and its African predecessor soupikandia.

Soupikandia has an earthier taste than the piquant gumbo and is still consumed in West African nations.

Yams (Not Sweet Potatoes)

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Unless you live in West Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, or frequent grocery stores serving those communities, you’ve probably never had a yam. When African slaves were exposed to sweet potatoes on farms and plantations, they just called the similar-looking tubers yams. Naturally, this was also exploited for financial gain in the American South and is still a marketing tool (and an example of the USDA’s laziness) used to differentiate sweet potatoes.

Real yams tend to be sweeter than sweet potatoes and can’t survive in most of the US. Depending on the variety, they can achieve a dessert-like sweetness, but are more often used to make porridge and to enhance fish stews.

Coffee

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The coffee plant has always grown wild in Ethiopia. Although there’s some beef between the nation and Yemen over the discovery and cultivation of coffee, most signs point to Ethiopia, while Yemen gets the distinction of the mocha birthplace. Origin myths from both countries involve animals getting over-caffeinated and people dramatically throwing beans into fires (Disney probably already has the movie rights).

Coffee cultivation began in Ethiopia around the 9th century and remains a major part of the country’s economy. It accounts for about 25 percent of the nation’s export earnings while supplying 15 million people with jobs.

Macadamia Nuts

Macadamia

Macadamia nuts are so special that some people lose their minds (and jobs) over simply plating them. The Bauple tree that bears the magical nut was discovered by the Kabi tribe, an Australian Aboriginal sect, around 30,000 years ago.

The macadamia nut was so treasured by the Kabi that they settled throughout the area of the rainforest where they naturally grew and traded with other tribes for high quality goods and tools.

Australian Aborigines lived largely off of bush foods until British colonizers introduced various modern cooking methods. Domestication of the macadamia nut is largely a white man’s tale, but its difficult-to-reach location and many similar, inedible sister tree nuts would make its cultivation difficult without the assistance of local Aborigines.

Sorrel

sorrel drink

Jamaican Sorrel was actually taken over from West Africa and both regions often use the hibiscus plant to make a tea-like beverage. Often combined with ginger for an added kick, sorrel is popularly drunk throughout the Caribbean during Christmas festivals.

The rich red color of the drink, along with its easy pairing with alcohol, make it a go-to beverage for celebrating on cooler winter nights.

Roti

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The farther south you travel in the West Indies, the more you start feeling like you’re in the East Indies.

Brief history lesson: when European traders and conquerors first interacted with the Indian sub-continent, they attributed races to the people currying favor toward the lighter northerners and associating the southerners (labeled Dravidians) with blackness and inferiority.

This kind of thinking made it pretty easy for the British Empire to swoop in later and stop treating Indians like people, but I digress.

Islands like Trinidad and Grenada are mostly comprised of African or Indian descendants, oftentimes a combination of the two. This, along with their close proximity to South America, results in a unique intersection of cuisines called the “roti.”

There are several types of roti, which really refers to the flatbread used to make it, but what you’ll usually get if you don’t specify is essentially a curry burrito. Chickpeas, potatoes, meat and sometimes other vegetables are wrapped in soft white flour flatbread and cooked on a tava for a subtle crispness. The flatbread itself is more pliable and flaky than most tortillas, which also makes it a popular choice for breakfast rotis.

Vatapa

Vatapa

I couldn’t possibly end this list without an Afro-Brazilian dish. As one of the most well-known cultural melting pots in the world, Brazil is certainly a mecca for fusion cuisine enthusiasts.

In the Bahia region of Brazil, which produces the most African-influenced dishes in the nation, this spicy, pungent peanut sauce is traditionally served with meat or fish. Its creation is very closely related to several ground nut stews and sauces popular in West and Central Africa.