Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What’s the Best Way to Make Sorrel? Depends Who You Ask.


Around a Christmas dinner table in New Jersey in 2018, I gathered with a group of fellow Caribbean transplants to potluck the classics: homemade rolls, baked ham, beef pastelles, ponche de crème and, of course, sorrel. When I gulped down a mouthful of the familiar, ruby-colored drink, I almost choked from an unexpected flavor—a burn?

 “Oh, you didn’t know?” the Trini hostess said with a laugh. “Jamaicans add ginger.”


I had not been forewarned. While the rum in the sorrel—a common addition to the drink—brought a punch I was familiar with, I was not expecting the intensity of a heavily gingered brew. The drink in my glass looked like the sweet tea I grew up with in Trinidad, but it was something quite different entirely.


Years later, I ordered a sorrel ginger lemonade at Lips Cafe in Flatbush, Brooklyn, now prepared for the chest burn. But this time, the drink had a heightened warmth of the holiday spices of cinnamon and star anise, enhanced by just the perfect accent of ginger in the sorrel-lemonade hybrid. I loved it. Had I become a Jamaican sorrel convert?

If you ask any Trini, they will tell you that their Christmas is the best. It’s a fact outlined in Susan Macio’s aptly named “Trini Christmas Is the Best,” a song that lists the traditional food and drinks of an excellent Trinbagonian Christmas, including, of course, sorrel. But other Caribbean people might disagree with this assertion: Each island has distinct interpretations and methods of preparing Caribbean foods, and each island claims that theirs is superior. Sorrel lands smack dab in the middle of an intraregional debate, specifically between Trinidad and Jamaica. Jamaicans, as I had learned, include ginger in their version, and Trinbagonians adamantly leave it out. While most Trinbagonians outright reject the burning aftertaste of the spice, Jamaicans can’t get enough.

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Merely posing the question, as I did on X, inspires fierce debate. Trinbagonian chef Brigette Joseph, who works in both Trinidad and Jamaica, confesses to acquiring a taste for a small touch of ginger in her recipe, but not too much of it, “not 5lb of ginger to burn my chest,” she wrote. “Need to feel the burn,” insisted another response, while another called ginger in sorrel “an abomination.”

Because methods for making sorrel are passed down along family lines, there is no single traditional recipe to make it, but there are commonalities across versions. Sorrel is made like a tea, though more often referred to as a juice in the Caribbean. It is spiced with a balancing act of cinnamon, clove, star anise, bay leaf and nutmeg, and reserved specially for the holiday season. Served over ice, it has the sweet tartness of currants, the cheer of mulled wine and the refreshing wash of cold-pressed fruit juice. 

To make the tea, brew the calyx (the fleshy part below the flower petals, which holds them together) of a deep red or black Hibiscus sabdariffa together with the spices, and then sweeten with copious amounts of white sugar, yielding a strong, syrupy liquid. Both dried and fresh sorrel can be used to make the brew and result in different tastes. While the dried flowers yield a more robust, slightly bitter, acidic and tannic flavor, and quickly produce that desired opaque garnet color, the drink’s taste is less fruity and floral than when it’s made with the fresh calyces. Some add orange segments (or just the peel) to their versions to restore a bit of vibrancy.

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Another iteration, whose origins supposedly go back to a happy accident when a batch was left out too long, is fermented, offering a subtle fizz. Sometimes, the addition of rice thickens the drink during this process, adding more body and richness. And in New York, where the Caribbean diaspora merges various island techniques, it is common to let the sorrel steep in the spiced, boiled water for a couple of days before straining and refrigerating for more intense flavor. Some recipes also include the addition of bitters. 

One thing all islands can agree on, though, is that sorrel flawlessly combines with rum—particularly white rum, so much so that Angostura added a sorrel flavor to its White Oak line in 2019. With its bright red color and herbaceous flavor, sorrel is a versatile (and gorgeous) ingredient for cocktails. In some rum-spiked recipes, the spirit is added to the brew directly, mixed in with the sugar. Jamaican recipes tend to add in both Wray & Nephew overproof white rum and the brand’s fortified Red Label Wine. Otherwise, the chilled juicy tea is simply used as a chaser for rum on the rocks.

On New York’s Lower East Side, the Caribbean bar Las’ Lap has served different rum-based sorrel cocktails over the years. This December, the bar has created the Sorrenity, which combines aged rum and St-Germain with citrus, sweetness and an ounce of sorrel for a punchy, floral drink. Las’ Lap makes its own tea for the cocktail, but as with all things sorrel, the exact mix is up to you. Make it however you enjoy it best.

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