Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.
By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.
You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.
More from Zester Daily:
You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.
In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.
Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)
Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)
This tea can be served hot or cold.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: About 4 cups
4 cups water, plus more for diluting
1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)
Ice, if desired
1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste
1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.
3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.
Jamaica Simple Syrup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: About 1 cup
4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)
1 cup white sugar
Pinch sea salt or kosher salt
1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Jamaica Salad Dressing
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 1/2 cup
3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
6 grinds black peppercorns
1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice
1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped
1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.
2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.
3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.
Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 quesadillas
2 cups water
1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)
8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter
2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack
1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.
5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.
Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky