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Jamaica Flowers Charm The Kitchen

Dried <em>jamaica</em> flowers, known in the U.S. as hibiscus flowers, infuse liquid with vivid red color and tart, flowery flavor.
Patricia Jinich for NPR
Dried jamaica flowers, known in the U.S. as hibiscus flowers, infuse liquid with vivid red color and tart, flowery flavor.

Growing up in Mexico City, my sisters and I used to prepare exotic meals, perfumes and potions for the inhabitants of our enchanted forest. That was our dog, the bluebird, snails, butterflies and ladybugs that happened to peek into our backyard and witness our extravagant mess. It also included any family friend who happened to stop by and become a willing victim. We sometimes offered cooking classes, too.

My mother set us up in the backyard on a big blanket with random pots and pans, while she cooked laborious weekend meals. There was a fig tree, an apple tree, a peach tree, a couple of what we called Chinese orange trees, and tons of azaleas and herbs that offered an immense array of witchcrafting material. But among our most prized ingredients were dried jamaica (pronounced ha-may-kah) flowers, known in the U.S. as hibiscus flowers, stored in a big jar in the kitchen.

Although not native to Mexico, with a contested origin between Africa and India, jamaica flowers arrived in colonial times and are now deeply integrated into Mexican cuisine. Mainly used to prepare agua de jamaica, one of the freshly flavored waters (aguas frescas), they are enjoyed daily throughout Mexico. Agua de jamaica is extremely popular because its tart flavor, also refreshing and light, complements Mexican food so well.

As a treat, and to make our wait more bearable, my mother would bring us a big pitcher of agua de jamaica. We would drink it, of course, but we would also pour it into ice cube molds with wooden sticks to make mini popsicles, or mix it with gelatin to make happy-looking jello, both of which are common in Mexico.

It was more fun, however, to sneak into the kitchen to get the dried flowers and experiment firsthand. Oh, how fascinating it was to see how they slowly infused the liquid in which they were soaking with an intensely deep and vivid red color. Their flowery and fragrant smell seemed to help with our magic spells, too.

After my husband and I moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, I would stuff them in my suitcase or ask someone to bring some when they visited from Mexico. My craving intensified while I was pregnant, since aside from their tangy taste (more welcome when carrying extra weight), their diuretic and digestive properties and richness in vitamin C and minerals are common knowledge in Mexico.

Luckily, I don't have to stuff them in my suitcase anymore. As with most ingredients used to cook Mexican food, they can be found in a store close by or with the click of a button, which is wonderful because I use plenty of them. The traditional jamaica water is a staple on my table, but most of all, I am still playing with them in my own enchanted forest or busy kitchen.

Like other adventurous Mexican cooks, I have been experimenting with and expanding their culinary uses. For example, the easy-to-make concentrate used to flavor water makes a rich and sophisticated base for a thick and syrupy sauce to drizzle over gamey meats such as duck, venison or lamb.

An even more daring approach, which I find irresistible, is to munch on these wholesome flowers. However, they are hard and rather tasteless as they are. They have to macerate for at least a couple of hours before they become deliciously chewy and release their tart and cranberrylike flavor. Thus, they are perfect for making exotic vinaigrettes.

The concentrate has also been splashed into margaritas for some time now, and I was recently surprised to find hibiscus-infused tequila at a restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. While I am no tequila connoisseur, it tasted heavenly.

These days when my mother visits, she tries to set up my three boys on a big blanket with pots and pans in our backyard. Within 10 minutes, the potion-making ends in a wrestling match. However, since one of their favorite things is to have brownies outside, maybe next time we bake some I can drizzle sweetened jamaica syrup and whipped cream on top. That is a recipe I still haven't tried.

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Patricia Jinich