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Snacking on hibiscus

I was pottering – purposefully, of course – in the garden at sunset yesterday, taking photos of some gorgeous hibiscus, and jasmine tumbling down the pergola, when I happened upon two visitors quietly snacking in the herbaceous border.

First I saw one grasshopper – then a second emerged. I had no idea they are partial to flowers, but as I watched they munched away on a bright yellow hibiscus bloom for all the world as if this was their usual pick-me-up.

As the flowers only last for a day before wilting into frail, papery tubes, I thought I’d leave them to it.You will see the visitors in the photos below – I wish I could load the video, but I don’t have the WordPress Premium Plan so it’s barred.

We share our garden with all sorts of insect life: ants, woodlice, beetles, praying mantis, butterflies, moths, bees and, yes, cockroaches of the burrowing kind. So I don’t have a problem if a grasshopper chooses to add a frilly edge to a hibiscus flower, as long as it doesn’t destroy them all.

That, of course, could happen if it got together with a lot of other hoppers and turned into a swarm. But two seemed a tolerable number.

In fact, I rather admired their choice of snack: We share a taste for hibiscus. On hot summer days, there are few more refreshing drinks than a cold glass of beautiful, deep red karkaday, served sweetened (oh, for sure, there may be tons of sugar in that glass!) and on ice.

Made from hibiscus, karkaday might be termed Egypt’s national drink in summertime, although many would say that ice-cold ‘assab or sugar cane juice runs it a close second.

Whether you are luxuriating on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan – a nostalgic hideaway much favoured by everyone from Agatha Christie to Jean-Paul Belmondo – or simply picking up a glass at a street stall in downtown Cairo, karkaday is a perfect antidote to the parching heat and dust of Egypt from May through September.

But this is not the same plant as the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that my friends were chomping. The drink is made from H. sabdariffa, a different species classified as a herb, that is particularly fine sourced from southern Egypt (Sayeed) and especially from the area around Aswan.

One summer, we filled half a raised bed with H. sabdariffa, thanks to the efforts of our first Engineer who recommended it as a summer crop for harvesting in the early autumn, and thus a useful plant to grow when many others cannot survive in the heat.

Gangly and unstable, the plants grew to about 1.5 metres and then fell about all over the place. They also attracted a ton of mealy bugs which clung resolutely to the stems of the flowers. These small, creamy blooms with deep purple centres, were followed by seed pods surrounded by stiff, dark red calyces. Harvesting meant collecting the calyces, a tortuous process that stains the fingers dark red, and then drying them in the sun.

Making up the drink is best done by simply soaking a handful of the calyces in a small jug of cold water for up to 12 hours, then straining and adding sugar, definitely to taste. It is often too sweet for me; I prefer to underplay the sugar, adding a little extra according to individual taste when serving – on ice, of course.

As for health benefits, these are many and varied, ranging from a booster dose of vitamin C to a number of anti-oxidants. The jury seems to be out concerning its anti-hypertensive properties, but I can vouch for its efficacy:

A few months ago, I saw a physician for follow-up after a bad bout of bronchitis. As usual, he checked my blood pressure and found it to be extraordinarily low, even for me (my bp has never been high, luckily) – something like 90/60. Taken aback, the only possible cause we could think of was a glass of karkaday I had drunk just before leaving the house. Then came his advice: “Not a problem,” he told us, and then – turning to my husband: “No need to do anything, just leave her alone!”

So, let’s raise a glass of beautiful, dark red, health-giving karkaday to the summer in Egypt:  Cheers!



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