Ed Smith explores the contents of his kitchen cupboard
Images: Ed Smith
At first glance the dried purple flowers on Cool Chile Co’s market stand seem somewhat out of place. Why, you might ask, is there a bucket of potpourri among the splendiferous display of dried chillies, London-made Mexican-style cheeses, white and blue masa harina and pots of pinto and black turtle beans? In fact, these hibiscus flowers are as vital to Mexican cuisine as all those things, and are absolutely worth scooping up by the bagful.
This is a flower full of tannins and citric acid (sugar or honey is usually necessary to temper those qualities), but used judiciously it is more than agreeable. If you are a fan of infusions and fruit teas you are probably familiar with hibiscus already—it’s a common ingredient in those drinks, with the tiniest hint providing a bold injection of colour and flavour. The water is immediately turned crimson, with flavours like cranberry, blackcurrant and lemon bursting forth.
In Mexico, where they’re known as flor de Jamaica, the flowers are steeped in water and the resulting liquid combined with sugar to make a simple, thirst quenching aqua fresca. Jamaicans, who name the flower sorrel, add ginger and sometimes rum to their version of the same drink. Panamanians mull a Christmas version with spices such as clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. And in north and west Africa, hibiscus water is infused with fresh mint or ginger and sold on the streets.
Power and complexity
Already I’m inspired. Yet these flowers are more useful to the home cook than as a flavouring in drinks. I’ve seen recipes in which hibiscus is used to add power and complexity to a lamb marinade. If ground into a powder, the dried flowers can be used to colour and flavour things like meringues, creams, yoghurts and marshmallows. I haven’t tried, but suspect that in this form it could also be used as an alternative to sumac—those tart, citrus notes are so similar. Indeed, in Hibiscus, her book on Nigerian cooking, Londoner Lopè Ariyo chops the dried flowers finely and combines with sumac to season pan-fried prawns.
I’ve soaked and simmered flowers until they were tender enough to turn into a compote and used a loose version of that as the fruity dressing for a pavlova, and more sugary iterations as a jam for my scones. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, in Mexico, rehydrated hibiscus flowers are used as if they were meat, as fillings for quesadillas, tacos and empanadas. It works, honestly. Once soaked, much of the tartness is passed on to the liquid used for hydration, leaving flowers that offer a similar bite and chew to that of pulled pork, and still plenty of flavour that pairs well with cheese, potatoes, fried onions or beans.
There’s also the bonus that, whether you’re planning on a drink or a dinner, you’re left with both options whatever you do. For less than a quid you could create crowd-pleasing quesadillas, plus a litre of aqua fresca for the team, and still be left with more liquid with which to make a granita to fork over yoghurt as a simple dessert on another occasion. Out of place? Not at all—it’s one of the most exciting and versatile ingredients in all the Market.