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.

A Bit about Bitters, Part II

By Erin Holden

Welcome to Part II on herbal bitters! For a little background info on what bitters are, why we taste them, and where we taste them, see Part I posted on 2/17/20. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessary if you just want to jump in with this article.

Historical Uses: Egyptian medical papyri from as far back as 2650 B.C. mention bitter herbs, such as frankincense, myrrh, aloe, and wormwood, being macerated in alcohol. Knowing now what we do about bitters, it’s reasonable to think some of these concoctions were used for stomach ailments that call for bitters today. Fast forwarding a bit, we find the origins of the famous Swedish Bitters in the mid 1700s. Considered a universal medicine, it contained, among other herbs, aloe, saffron, rhubarb, gentian, and myrrh. Another common ingredient was theriac, a “composite” medicine consisting of up to sixty-four vegetable, animal, and mineral parts. Several of these – caraway seed, ginger, angelica root, and fennel to name a few – are still used in contemporary bitters formulae.

In Cocktails: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention bitters as they are used in cocktails. Many countries, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, have “the tradition of consuming an Range_of_Cocktailbittersherbal, bittersweet liqueur as an aperitif or digestif”, to either stimulate or aid digestion before or after a meal (Parsons, 2011). However, during the 1850s in the United States, the temperance movement, along with high taxes on potable alcohol (alcohol consumed as a beverage), forced these types of drinks to fall out of favor, and led to the increased popularity of stomach bitters, a nonpotable alcohol (so not subject to the same taxes). Unfortunately, many unscrupulous companies began making outlandish claims for their products, forcing the federal government to step in and lay down restrictions. This, along with Prohibition in 1919, knocked bitters off the U.S. map for a good long while.

DandelionIn Food: Many countries that traditionally partake of alcoholic bitters also have a history of harvesting and consuming bitter spring greens. Plants such as burdock, dandelion, and cresses pop up early in the spring, and their bitter leaves not only helped stimulate digestive systems turned sluggish from a winter of consuming preserved foods, but provided much needed vitamins and minerals. Additionally, many bitter plants are anthelmintic, meaning they help kill intestinal worms. It gives new meaning to the term “spring cleaning!”

Bitters Today: Building on a long history of use, herbalists today suggest bitters for a variety of digestive disturbances – from dispelling gas, increasing bile production and secretion, to supporting healthy blood sugar regulation. As stated in Part I, though, bitters are produced by plants for defense, and as such can be pretty powerful. Always consult a trained herbalist first if you’re considering taking bitters.

Regarding their use in cocktails, herbal bitters have taken off in recent years. I remember when Angostura Bitters were all I could find, but within just the past few years, my local liquor store has started offering many more brands and flavors. Trendy bars have also taken to concocting their own special house bitters, and books are being written on the subject.

Bitter Herbs: The list of bitter herbs is a long one, so I just wanted to highlight a few. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is most famous for its role in the liqueur Absinthe; itsWormwood_shoots by Eddideigel common name comes from its use in killing intestinal parasites. Cinchona (Cinchona spp.) is the botanical source of quinine, the widely used antimalarial agent. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), the archetypal bitter, is a main ingredient in most commercially available cocktail bitters, including Angostura Bitters. Some plants that don’t have an overt bitter flavor, such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and ginger (Zingiber officinale), are also sometimes classified as “bitters” by herbalists due to their therapeutic action on the digestive system.

Thanks for sticking with me through this rather long “intro” into herbal bitters. If this topic tickles your fancy, I highly recommend the following resources: two books on bitter foods and cocktail bitters, with recipes, and a fascinating paper on the history of Swedish Bitters. The book by B.T. Parsons is available for checkout to members from the HSA library for the cost of shipping.

Ahnfelt, N. & Fors, H. 2016. Making early modern medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters. From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science; 63(2): 162-183.

McLagan, Jennifer. 2014. Bitter: A taste of the world’s most dangerous flavor, with recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Parsons, B.T. 2011. Bitters: A spirited history of a classic cure-all. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of The Herb Society of America.

 

 

A Bit about Bitters, Part I

By Erin Holden

From grapefruit to coffee to arugula – lots of plants are bitter. And while some people will cross the street to avoid a bitter veggie, others can’t seem to get enough. Why is this? Join me on a two part journey as I delve into the science and use of one of nature’s most divisive flavors.

The What: How do you define a bitter? If you’re a chemist, they’re structurally unrelated compounds that, well, taste bitter. If you’re an herbalist, bitters are plants that are used for their therapeutic effect on the digestive system. And if you’re a bartender, bitters are aromatic flavoring agents made from various plant parts to enhance the taste of a drink. Based on these definitions it’s easy to see that bitters fulfill many roles in our lives. But why can we taste bitter to begin with?

The Why:Rat poison The main reason plants create bitter compounds boils down to one simple thing: defense. Since plants can’t run and hide from predators, they devised their own chemical defense system – the first instance of chemical warfare, you could say. When an insect bites into, say, a broccoli plant, it gets a mouthful of glucosinolates, sulfur containing compounds that are toxic to insects and rodents, and gross to some people. Plants see us as essentially giant rodents that want to eat them, and create a wide variety of nasty tasting compounds to deter us from doing so. In turn, since some of these compounds not only taste bad but can also kill humans, we evolved taste receptors to detect them, therefore potentially skirting death.

The Where: So, where exactly do we have these taste receptors? I’m sure many of you learned the “flavor map” of the tongue in school, like I did, which outlines where we can detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter (poor umami got left out on that one). Well I’m here to tell you, that map is bunk! It’s based on the misinterpretation of a graph from 1942, that plotted out areas of relative sensitivity of the tongue to the various flavors. Later on, low areas of sensitivity were mistakenly interpreted as having no sensitivity, leading to the incorrect map we’re all familiar with today. All flavors can be detected across the whole tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, and the epiglottis. Other research has suggested that while areas of the tongue do show varying levels of sensitivity to the five known flavors, these differences are not significant (Wanjek, 2006).

Taste_buds

Photo Credit: MesserWoland

Having taste receptors on the tongue is no surprise, but you may be surprised to learn bitter receptors have also been found in the brains, airways, gastrointestinal tract, testes, and pancreas of various mammals (including humans). This leads back to WHY? The prevailing hypotheses boil down to the same thing – protection. If our airways are full of bacteria that are producing bitter compounds, our cough response is triggered, so we cough up and expel the offending invader. If an ingested bitter toxin makes its way to our guts, it’ll essentially trip the “abandon ship” alarm, causing our body to purge itself of the potential poison in unpleasant ways.

I’ll stop there with that thought. Keep an eye out for the follow-up, where I’ll talk about the historical uses of bitters, their role in herbal medicine, and mention some specific bitter herbs.

Wanjek, C. 2006. The tongue map: Tasteless myth debunked. Live Science. From Livescience.com. Accessed January 31, 2019. Available from https://www.livescience.com/7113-tongue-map-tasteless-myth-debunked.html on 1/31/2019

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.