Calyces at Souk

Hibiscus Calyces at Souk
Dried hibiscus calyces are ubiquitous at herb and spice stalls in the open-air markets of North Africa and the Middle East. Whether made into roselle syrup (boiling the calyces in water and sugar, then simmering to let most of the water evaporate) or tea (infusing plain water by submerging the calyces for an extended period), the taste is tart and fruity, reminiscent of cranberry or red currant. The burgundy syrup is used to flavor and color candies, pies and cakes as well as frozen treats like ice cream, sorbet and shaved ice. It is also typically poured over pancakes and gingerbread. Due to naturally high pectin content, the syrup is particularly well-suited for making both preserves and a cranberry sauce substitute, especially when broken bits of calyx are tossed in for texture. In fact, during the first half of the 20th century before land in Florida became so extensively developed, roselle rode a wave of popularity in home gardens for just this purpose, engendering its local nickname of “Florida cranberry.”  An employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ─ with the plucky title of Special Agent, BPI (Bureau of Plant Industry) ─ helped set off this trend when he wrote in the 1907 Farmers’ Bulletin, “The roselle[‘s] . . . excellent qualities for making a sauce so closely imitating in flavor the cranberry as to deceive the very elect are not well known by the public or it would be a formidable rival in the South to that [Northern] fruit, on which transportation charges are necessarily high . . . [T]he calyx may be used for making sauce, jam, and transparent, bright red jelly. Many other dishes will suggest themselves to the thrifty housewife.”