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Hibiscus Tea: Making Jamaica with Piloncillo

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Oh. My. Gosh. Did you see the sunshine yesterday! I was out there with my flabby, pale self, just putzing around the yard looking for any reason to be under that gorgeous sky. It felt so good. Today is looking about the same. We just might have to grill tonight…

In honor of reasonable temperatures and the return of summer skirts and leg-shaving, I made jamaica. The southern US states have their sweet tea. But the southwestern states have jamaica. And thanks only to Mexico. You may have had it, or seen it in your fave (authentic) Mexican food joint. It’s usually pretty sweet and kind of tangy. And it’s a beautiful red color. Commercially prepared hibiscus tea just can’t hold a candle to the homemade version.


Making hibiscus tea


Jamaica (ha-MAI-ka) is the tea made from hibiscus flowers. The particular plant is also known as the roselle. Jamaica has other names- hibiscus tea, hibiscus flower water or juice, roselle tea, etc. In the body, it works similarly to cranberry juice. Therefore, it’s tart. It’s fantastic for treating urinary tract infections, thanks to its acidity and astringent properties. But it works best if it’s not overly sweetened. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot day. Think about it. Mexico is hot. They know about this kind of stuff. This could be the bright red, scary-dye-free, Kool-aid alternative you’ve been looking for.

The dried flowers can also be used as a natural dye source. I haven’t tried this yet (but fully intend to). However, this means it STAINS. Splash carefully. It seems to leave a bluish tint. When I play around with these buds in the dye-pot, you know I’ll tell you all about it!

Making Hibiscus Tea

Hibiscus buds are sold dried. The price per pound may scare you at first, but you’re only going to need a few ounces. A small handful of buds makes a gallon of tea. Seriously. They can be found in Hispanic grocery stores, often among the packaged spices. Here in this area, I find them in the bulk bins of our major grocery store. They are smack dab in the middle of the produce section, next to the fresh chiles (or peppers). Or, you can pick up a bag online. 

Next up is piloncillo (pee-loan-SEE-yo). The tea needs some sort of sweetening, and this is my sugar of choice. If you’re a “real food” kind of peep, like me, you might want to take a look at this authentic ingredient. I LOVE using mineral rich sweeteners, like sucanat or coconut sugar. But in reality, my teeeny budget can’t hack it. While white sugar is commonly used for the drink, piloncillo is Mexico’s most natural and unrefined sugar, similar to jaggery, or sucanat, etc. The cones are dried sugar cane syrup. They are minimally (often primitively) processed. (I’ve actually watched the process at a mule-powered stone mill. Really, really cool.) The minerals are still intact and add a hint of caramel flavor to the finished product.

Making Hibiscus Tea

Piloncillo comes in cones of various sizes. The size found at the major retailer nearby (in the bulk bins next to the hibiscus flowers) are small; maybe 3 inches at the base and just as tall. I buy them for $1.49 a pound. Other shops carry much larger cones. They may also be packaged and displayed near other spices. If you’re looking in a hispanic market, just ask.

Piloncillo is hard to grate. It’s tough stuff. Cutting it with a knife is a dangerous undertaking, serrated or not. I’ve successfully shaved off pieces from a larger cone, but it takes time. I tend to favor the small cones and use them whole. But, if you’ve only got the big guys to work with, there is hope. Dissolve the cone in a small amount of water. (Add more water as needed. You just don’t want to dilute it too much.) You can do this slowly with lukewarm liquid and stir it a few times, or try it on the stove in a pan of simmering water. Your goal is to make a syrup for easier use. Freeze the excess in ice cube trays. Transfer the frozen cubes to a freezer bag and there ya go.

Okay, okay! Let’s just make it already!

Making hibiscus tea

What you’ll need:

1 SMALL handful of hibiscus flowers, dried

3 quarts water, filtered (or not.)

piloncillo to taste

***A couple notes here~ Hibiscus flowers are potent. I ain’t kiddin’! A little goes a long way. However, if you make your tea it too strong, you can always dilute it. Whereas If you make it too weak- it’s much more work to make it stronger.

Piloncillo is not a strong sweetener. Depending on my batch of tea, I may use 3 or 4 of the smaller cones. I like mine less sweet than what I find commercially, but sweet enough that my sugar-loving Man will enjoy it. The more I add, the more minerals I’m adding too. Win-win in my book.

Making hibiscus tea

Go ahead and give your buds a quick rinse. I do mean quick. Toss those ruby reds into a large stainless steel pot. Add your water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour the tea into a pitcher, straining out the flowers. Compost them babies! Begin adding your piloncillo, a portion at a time. Stir- it can take some time for it to dissolve. (Sometimes I add it when the brew is boiling). Have a taste! More water? More piloncillo?

Keep your pitcher in the fridge. Try boiling it with cinnamon sticks, or adding orange zest. Or add mango and peach slices, like in sangria. It’s a versatile bev. Then bring it out onto the back porch. My flabby, pale self will be waiting there for ya.






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