Food and Drink

Hibiscus Is Everywhere, But Where Does it Actually Come From?

More U.S. farms are starting to grow their own roselle.

Photo courtesy of Pride Road
Photo courtesy of Pride Road
Photo courtesy of Pride Road

You’ve probably seen hibiscus on the menus of your favorite restaurants, infused in margaritas and martinis, or dried and packaged like licorice in grocery store aisles. The flower even dominated Starbucks at one point with their Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher, which caused a major uproar when it was discontinued.

The hibiscus craze, however, is nothing new. Hibiscus tea is beloved and consumed by a multitude of cultures and holds many names, such as bissap in Senegal, karkadé in Egypt, or sorrel in the Caribbean, where the beverage is typically consumed during Christmastime.

It all stems from roselle, a flowering plant native to West Africa. Despite the fact that hibiscus continues to grow in popularity, there are few roselle farms in the United States, as the plant thrives in a tropical climate and requires rainfall. However, farms like family-run business Pride Road in Lithonia, Georgia-which grows and sells their own hibiscus products such as chutneys, jellies, sodas, and teas-have begun to emerge.

“My dad said if we were going to start our business, we were going to have to grow it ourselves,” says Pride Road owner and operator Najeeb Muhaimin. “Most of the hibiscus being sold and consumed in the United States is imported, so not many people actually have the capacity to grow and process it.”

The growing process all begins with collecting the seeds from the season’s previous harvest and planting them in Pride Road’s greenhouse. Once the roselle reaches a certain height, it is transplanted to the fields. It is ready to harvest after the roselle blooms and the flower petals (which can also be used for consumption) wither off. The red calyx, which sits behind the petals and holds the delicious flavour, is then hand-picked and processed in their facility.

Hibiscus itself is mainly exported to the United States, Mexico, and multiple parts of Asia and Europe-they receive their imports from farms in the northern region of Nigeria, Sudan, China, and Thailand. But, growing roselle in the United States is becoming more common, with what is to be believed the first roselle farm in South Carolina popping up in Bucksport, Mishoe Legacy Farms. While Mishoe and Pride Road are some of a few companies in the United States growing and harvesting their own roselle, many other businesses have their own connection to the specialty crop.Trinidadian couple Khalid Hamid and Shelly Marshall began their shop in Brooklyn, Island Pops, after Marshall was homesick and unable to track down sorrel as tasty as the one she had in her home country. Island Pops sources their hibiscus in the form of dried sorrel petals from wholesale grocer Chef Choice in Brooklyn, who receive their goods from Nigeria.

“Sorrel was one of our favourite things growing up-the smell of the leaves brewing with cinnamon and cloves,” Hamid says. “It just takes you to all the warm feelings and the nostalgia you get from an island Christmas.”

Photo courtesy of Island Pops
Photo courtesy of Island Pops
Photo courtesy of Island Pops

People flock to Island Pops to experience that feeling with one of the shop’s most popular flavours, their sorrel rum sorbet, which begins by brewing hibiscus leaves overnight in boiling water. And while their customer base began as being rooted in people like Marshall, who are longing for a taste of home, the shop has begun to see many new patrons desperate to feed their hibiscus obsession. “All of the sudden hibiscus is trending, but it’s what we grew up on. It’s like second nature to us; I can’t tell you when we’ve not had it,” Marshall says.

Clearly, hibiscus is a buzzy ingredient on the rise, and the demand is only increasing. In 2019, the roselle plant had a market value at over $113 million, with expected annual growth of 7.2 percent in the next five years. With its naturally sweet flavor, beautiful red hue that can replace synthetic dyes, and myriad health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and preventing liver damage, the plant is becoming a sensation. The 2022 Food and Beverage Flavor Trends Report state hibiscus use as an ingredient has gone up 65% in ubiquity on drink menus.

Even though there is an overwhelming desire for hibiscus, Marshall and Hamid ultimately welcome customers and their newfound love with open arms. “There’s so many positive traits of this flower, and now the word is getting out,” Hamid says. “People are starting to see our passion for it, and it’s a blessing.”

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Kelsey Allen is an editorial assistant at Thrillist.

Food and Drink

Why Makrut Lime Makes a Star Ingredient in Cocktails

The Southeast Asian citrus is intensely aromatic and pairs with rum, gin, tequila, and more.

Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks
Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks
Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks

I grew up with a makrut lime tree in my backyard, admiring the double leaves and dimpled citrus fruit that frequently made their way into our family dinners. Makrut limes, which are sometimes referred to kaffir limes (although the term is controversial and has been widely retired), are native to Southeast Asia, but somehow my mom willed a tree to grow in our Southern California home with great success.

To me, makrut meant savoury Thai food: steamed fish curry wrapped in banana leaves and sprinkled with chiffonade makrut, simmering tom kha gai with floating bits of the hand-torn citrus leaves, and glistening green curry accentuated by the plant’s aroma.

But to others, makrut is an ideal ingredient in cocktails and other drinks. Such is the case for Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant in Manhattan known for its seafood dishes and eclectic, complementary cocktail menu. Beverage director Beau Fontano knew he had to include makrut in his creations, especially because the ingredient is so prominent on the food menu. Makrut lime finds its way in several drinks, most notably as a garnish atop the Thank You Kha, a riff on the acidic coconut stew tom kha gai, and the Manao Mao, a rum-based drink that uses makrut lime bitters.

“I don’t love using the word tiki, but if you think of those tiki rum cocktails, makrut definitely works well in those,” Fontano says. “But I also love it in martinis-there’s something really clean about it. And with makrut lime, if you’re just using the leaves, you can do a lot of rapid infusions.”

Fontano only uses the leaves, because the rinds and juice of makrut limes are famously bitter. “Regular lime has a little bit more sugar content, so that’s why it’s much more approachable in cocktails. Makrut limes tend to be more dry,” he explains. “But when you use the leaves in cocktails, you just smack it to wake it up a little bit and it gets that nice citrusy, refreshing aroma which is really fun.”

The leaves are cut fresh, so each drink has the scent of makrut lime leaves wafting off of them. “I’m sure at one point I will get around to it and try to figure out how to use the juice,” he laughs.

Further north at Paper Tiger in Portland, Maine, makrut lime leaves are also prevalent in a cocktail called Something Scandalous, a tequila-based drink intended to be, in the words of bartender Nick Reevy, “crushed easily.”

Paper Tiger
Paper Tiger
Paper Tiger

“I went with tequila, specifically, because in Maine it’s 80 degrees and humid pretty much all summer,” Reevy explains. “So I made something you kick back easily. Agave has a really nice softness that elevates the makrut lime, and the main flavour in that drink is the Thai basil.”

The drink is an alluring shade of green and is rounded out by cinnamon syrup and falernum. “Makrut lime is really herbal and bright in a way no other citrus is,” Reevy adds. “It’s interchangeable with other limes, but it just adds this whole other depth of flavour.”Makrut lime has even made its way into hard seltzer, albeit a limited edition drop from Lunar. Founder Kevin Wong knew he wanted to add another citrus drink to his rotation as he witnessed the successes of hard lemonades, but already had a yuzu iteration. Makrut lime seemed like a natural follow-up.

Photo courtesy of Lunar
Photo courtesy of Lunar
Photo courtesy of Lunar

“It has a very intense citrus fragrance, almost perfumey or soapy,” Wong ponders. “Like I could see Le Labo putting out a makrut lime fragrance. It has such a commanding presence and body.”

To tamper down some of the boldness of the makrut lime, the hard seltzer uses makrut lime leaf extract, lime juice, and cane sugar. The aromatics of the lime are present without too much bitterness; instead, the seltzer is grassy, acidic, and dry. Wong recommends pairing the can with spicy foods, especially Szechuan dry pot.

The makrut lime seltzer is currently sold out, and Wong is unsure whether or not another batch is in the works. “I feel like makrut lime is the greatest secret unknown to the Western world,” he says. “It’s in medicine, candy, herbal drinks, cosmetics and aromatherapy. I think we did the seltzer too early, and I don’t know if the world is ready for us to bring it back yet. Maybe in a couple of years.”

But judging by the growing popularity of makrut lime in beverage menus, the comeback might be sooner than he expects.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.