Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part I

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esI was visiting my mother just a few weeks before Christmas in 2017. She had recently moved to a wonderful small family-run assisted living home. The owner, Ann Abdul, asked me if I’d like to taste some “sorrel drink” she had made for the holiday season. I had no idea what that was. It looked Christmassy–a brilliant ruby red. I took a sip, and the most delicious taste filled my mouth. It was a rich, complex, and unfamiliar burst of flavors. But it tasted like Christmas, too—it was sweet, and I thought I could detect cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But it also tasted a bit like lemonade with a pronounced citrusy tartness. I loved it, and I had to know more! 

Ann and her family are from Trinidad, and over the next two years, I learned so much from her about Trinidad cuisine and culture. The island nation Trinidad & Tobago has a complex history of colonization, slavery, indentured labor, and immigration from all around the world, which has led to a cuisine and a culture that blends Indian, African, Creole, Amerindian, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern ingredients and traditions. It is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world and is full of bold flavors. 

There are certain recipes–food and drink–that are essential for Christmas in Trinidad. Ann says it simply isn’t Christmas without them. Maybe you will want to explore some of them and add them into your own celebrations. First, let’s look at what drinks are important to Christmas in Trinidad.

20171009_171414It turned out that “sorrel” is a name for the calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant commonly known as roselle, as well as the beverage that is made from them. If you have ever tasted Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, then you have tasted sorrel. (This sorrel is not related to the leaves of Rumex acetosa, also known as sorrel, which is used as a salad green and fresh herb.) In the Caribbean, the fleshy calyces are used fresh or dried to make the beverage. They are boiled along with various whole spices, then strained, sweetened, and cooled. It is served cold, with or without rum. The exact recipe varies from family to family, but the spices used would typically include cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, ginger, star anise, and orange peel. Ann’s recipe calls for cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, and vanilla. In Trinidad, many people grow their own Hibiscus sabdariffa so they can harvest the fresh, but highly perishable, calyces, which ripen around Christmas-time, for making their sorrel. (Fresh sorrel may be hard to locate in some sections of the United States, but packets of dried sorrel are easier to find in the International food sections of stores or through Caribbean/International markets online.) For additional information on Hibiscus sabdariffa, check out the blog’s previous post on roselle.

Angostura bittersAnother essential Trinidadian Christmas drink is one more familiar to most Americans. Ponche de crème is their flavorful take on eggnog. Served straight or spiked with rum, this delicious drink must contain a special Trinidad ingredient: Angostura Bitters. You may be familiar with Angostura Bitters as a cocktail ingredient. It has a history that goes back to the early 19th century and is worthy of a post all its own! It is a concentrated alcoholic herbal concoction said to contain as many as 40 botanical ingredients, the exact recipe of which is rumored to be known by only five living people! It started out as a medicine and made its way into flavoring food and drink. Although the recipe is unknown, it is widely believed to include orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, cocoa nibs, and the intensely bitter Gentiana lutea, a European alpine wildflower with a long history in medicine and brewing. Just a dash of Angostura Bitters is enough to help flavor most recipes. And in Trinidad, according to Ann, a dash is added to almost everything, particularly fruit juices. 

IMG_20201027_074741_444Lastly, the third beverage essential to Christmas in Trinidad is also enjoyed year-round: ginger beer. Ginger beer is a strongly flavored version of ginger ale that is non-alcoholic. The rhizome of Zingiber officinalis contains volatile oils, such as zingerone and gingerols, that give ginger its characteristic “zing.” Most families in Trinidad, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, make their ginger beer at home from fresh ginger rhizomes, and the resulting ginger beer often has a very strong punch of ginger flavor. It contains other spices such as cinnamon and clove. It is made very strong, and it can be diluted with water or club soda to suit your taste.

Next week: Trinidad Christmas foods!

All recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” (which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential cookbooks on Trinidadian cuisine, found in almost every home, according to Ann.)

Ann’s Sorrel Drink

  • Dried sorrel1 package dried sorrel (Angel brand easily available online or in Caribbean market)
  • 10 cloves
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 8 cups of water

Boil until tender, then cool. 

When cool add:

  • 1-2 cups sugar or to taste (sorrel is extremely tart)
  • ½ cup rum (optional)
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract

Store in refrigerator and enjoy throughout the season!

Ponche De Crème

  • 6 eggs
  • Peel of one lime
  • 3  15 oz. cans evaporated milk
  • 1½  14 oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp Angostura bitters
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup rum or more to taste

Directions:

  1. Beat eggs and lime peel until light and fluffy.
  2. Add evaporated milk.
  3. Sweeten to taste with condensed milk.
  4. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum according to taste.
  5. Remove lime peel.
  6. Serve with crushed ice.

Notes:

You can substitute 1 ½ cups pureed steamed pumpkin for eggs. Consuming raw eggs carries risk of salmonella bacteria illness. Using pasteurized eggs reduces this risk.

Ginger Beer

  • 1 lb. fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water
  • juice and peel of one lime
  • 4 cups granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4-6 cloves

Directions:

  1. Wash, peel, and grate ginger root.
  2. Place in a large bottle with 8 cups of water and juice and peel of one lime.
  3. Leave in the sun for one day. Next day, drain and sweeten with sugar.
  4. Pour into clean bottles and place in the refrigerator. Allow to settle for 2 days.

If too strong, dilute with club soda or water to taste.

Photo credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Hibiscus sabdariffa (sorrel/roselle) calyces (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 3) Angostura Bitters (angosturabitters.com); 4) Zingiber officinale (ginger) rhizomes (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 5) Dried sorrel calyces (angelbrand.com).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

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