It’s summer time here in the northern hemisphere. Though you wouldn’t know it as I write this wrapped in layers of warmth. But that doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy a summer drink in honour of the season.
Karkade (pr: kar-ka-day), or hibiscus, is a popular drink across Egypt and also in neighbouring Sudan, where it is simply referred to as Sudanese tea by most east Africans. In the middle of a hot day, when you’re dying for a drink, a cool, tart and refreshing karkade juice is the perfect thing.
But what is Karkade you ask? It’s a juice or tea made from hibiscus flower petals. And given the hibiscus flower grows readily in the hot climate, it’s the one the drink you can always count on.
Depending on who makes it, the sweetening may push you into a diabetic coma, or may just be the right amount. But luckily this is a drink that can easily be watered down if it’s too sweet for your liking; just make sure the host who offered you the drink doesn’t see you in the act of dilution.
The same drink, called bissap, is also found in West Africa, namely in Senegal, which is where hibiscus is also grown now, along with Mali. Perhaps the flower made its way over there through trade in the Sahara? Or perhaps the nomadic Peul or Fula people, who are thought to originate from East Africa but crossed the desert, brought along karkade.
There are numerous hibiscus varieties. According to my research the original eight come from Mauritius, Madagascar, China, India, and Fiji.
But the one grown in Egypt and west Africa is of the Hibiscus Sabdariffa variety.
Outside the African continent, karkade is used differently. The flor de Jamaica, as hibiscus is called in the Carribbean and South American countries, is drunk as a tea but not only made from the petals. In China, the petals are eaten. And in India, the petals are boiled and the water is made into a syrup which is poured over ice.
But since the days of ancient Egypt, karkade has been made into a beverage to mark a special occasion.
If you have never tried it, I would say it’s just like sipping cranberry juice, in terms of colour and tartness. But it’s not nearly as tart which is why it’s easy to drink and feels refreshing.
Growing up in Canada, it’s not something we had access to, so while I had always heard about it, I only got to finally taste it during my first trip to Egypt as a teenager and was hooked from that moment on.
None of my trips in Egypt are complete without karkade overload. And when I found it in Senegal, I was the happiest person around. Imagine being able to drink such a random drink on both sides of the continent!
Unlike most of the fresh juices you can get in Egypt at the stands around the cities, karkade is not one of them; simply because it has to be made in advance.
As my mother explained, growing up in Egypt in the pre-globalism era, there were few options in terms of cold beverages at home. So you often had water, orange juice, coca cola, lemonade and karkade.
It is easy to find. Any restaurant will serve it and likely so will a cafe. There’s also the karkade man who will walk around with a giant glass jar strapped to him yelling “karkade!!!” but it might be safer for your first time to stick with the restaurant version.
Karkade itself was always revered for its medicinal properties, namely regulating blood pressure, being a diuretic and being high in vitamin C.
In fact, among Egyptian thinking (not necessarily logical), cold karkade will lower your blood pressure while hot karkade will increase it. The lowering your blood pressure bit stands…the other, I’m doubtful. But that’s just me. Outside of Egypt, sipping hibiscus tea is recommended for those with high blood pressure.
But apart from being a refreshing drink, it also has some status. At big celebrations where alcohol may not be available, karkade makes an appearance, such as weddings, or when you’re paying a visit to someone at home. Even now, in the hotels, they will also serve guests a glass as a ‘welcome to egypt’ gesture. Either way, if you’re offered a glass, take it!
You can’t, however buy it as a juice to go. But making it at home is super easy and you don’t have to fuss around with too many measurements. That being said, you need a bit of time. While you can technically make it in just a few minutes, I would strongly suggest you let it soak much longer; that way you get the best flavour.
As I mentioned earlier, Egyptians (and pretty much anywhere across Africa) make it sickingly sweet. If I was still five years old, I’d be all over that; but I’m not. So doing it at home means you can adjust the sweetness level. I even use honey instead of sugar, since it too has some benefits and does not alter the flavour.
If you make it as a tea, you can steep it for just a few minutes, or heat up a batch from what you’ve made.
The juice only requires dried hibiscus petals and water. And a sweetener of your choice.
You can find hibiscus petals in any african or middle eastern supermarket. I haven’t checked myself, but you should also be able to find it in asian supermarkets as well.
Preparation time: five minutes
Steeping time: one hour to 12 hours
Yields: two bottles (750 ml)
6 cups of water
2 hand fulls of hibiscus petals
honey or sugar
7. Because this is fresh and you have added a sweetener, make sure to drink it within a week, or it will ferment (also tasty, but not the point)