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.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

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.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Herbal Hacks, Part 1: Food and Drink

We asked and you delivered! Over the summer we asked folks to share how they used herbs to make their lives easier or more fun. We received many great responses, and want to thank everyone who contributed a little snippet of herbal how-to. We received so many responses, in fact, that we’ve decided to offer them in installments, categorized by topic for easy reference. Please enjoy this week’s selection – herbs in food and drink.

Violet banner_Creative Commons via Pxfuel

I love to use fresh herbs as drink garnishes and in ice cubes. Edible flowers and leaves enhance my beverages, from my morning smoothie to my afternoon glass of wine! – Janice Cox

Dried blue cornflower petals sprinkled over salads – or as a garnish on other foods – for a beautiful blue punch of color! Flowers are harvested each year from my garden at the end of a hot day, dried on white cotton tea towels on cookie sheets for two to three days before removing petals, then I hang the petals in mesh bags to finish drying for a week or more before putting them into clean, labeled jars to use throughout the year. – Becki Smith

I infuse sugar with herbs to punch and kick it up a notch or two when baking special treats. – Eliza G

In late fall I heavily prune back many of my herbs. After washing, I put them – stems included – in a large pot, cover with water, and make a strong herbal broth. I freeze it in two and four cup amounts to use as a base for soups through the winter. The two cup amounts can be mixed with chicken or beef broth if I want that flavor. – Terry Senko

Infusions! ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’ (a Pelargonium) simple syrup for our margaritas, and lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) infused into heavy cream for our homemade ice cream! – Lois Sutton

Colorful herb drinksA cool tip I learned my first season in Herb Society of America was how to make canned lemonade taste like fresh: add the juice of one lemon. How simple is that! I had success with other citrus as well. Add your favorite herb to make it chic. The first tip I learned from Madalene Hill was put an herb in the bottom of the cake pan to add complexity and surprise to your cake. The second was her mantra: “fat delivers flavor”. – Adrianne Kahn

A roll of goat cheese covered in fresh chopped thyme, with crackers on the side, makes for a quick appetizer tray to serve or to bring to a gathering. – Becki Smith

When the first snow is expected, I harvest my fresh garden herbs. I cut thyme, oregano, and basil fine, and put the mix in ice cube tray pockets. Then I pour olive oil (any oil would do) over the herbs, freeze, and package. When I need to oil a pan I add one or two. As the oil melts, the herbal fragrance smells of summer, and the taste is fresh herbs. – Lola Wilcox

When serving white pasta dishes, garnish with a chiffonade of purple ruffles basil – looks fabulous and tastes wonderful. Add borage to your Pimms cup – pretty colored flower and refreshing cucumber flavor. – Kim Labash

Tiny bits of finely minced anise hyssop can be added to sliced strawberries macerating with a bit of sugar, or to chunks of cantaloupe, or to almost any fruit to add an ethereal, spicy sweetness that transforms and elevates a simple fruit dessert. Pair it with a floral rosé wine and linger at the table with your guests on a soft summer night. – Kathleen McGowan

Water infused with herbs. – Linda Hogue

Borage and creamI grow herbs and vegetables. I also save onion peels, potato peels, carrot shavings, the hard bits of celery, etc. Instead of sending them directly to the compost, they go into a freezer bag. After I fill a one gallon bag, the veggie bits go into the crock pot along with fresh herbs, salt, and pepper, and one to two quarts of water (enough to cover the veggies). I slow cook this for about six hours, strain the broth, and put it into Mason or Ball quart or pint jars (within one inch of the top), and freeze it. Finally, all of the leftover veggie bits get to go back to the compost pile to feed the next round of herbs and vegetables. – Catherine O’Brien

I planted a beautiful bay laurel bush just outside my kitchen door so I can add fresh bay leaves to potatoes, soups and more by walking out the door, and to use for wreaths when I prune the bush. – Becki Smith

I like to put fresh herbs in ice cubes for drinks in summer. Some favorites are a borage flower in a cube for a gin and tonic, or lavender petals to chill my glass of Earl Grey tea! Cheers! – Cheryl Skibicki

Photo Credits: All photos from Pixabay

Peru Balsam, the Loveliest Fragrance

By Erin Holden

Myroxylon_balsamum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-141The first time I smelled balsam of Peru essential oil, I was hooked. The word that keeps coming to mind is decadent – deep, rich notes of vanilla with soft, smooth cinnamon and serious undertones of propolis. This isn’t surprising, as the oil shares thirteen constituents with propolis, a sticky substance made by bees for various purposes, similar in scent to honey. It also contains vanillin, responsible for vanilla’s fragrance, and a whole host of cinnamon-related compounds.  

I’ve been using small amounts of the essential oil in my personal perfume blends for many years. When I recently found a source for the resin, I immediately bought 2 ounces, thinking I could grind it up and use it in some homemade incense. I was quite surprised when I received a bottle of liquid more like molasses instead of the hard grains reminiscent of frankincense that I was expecting. That, in turn, prompted me to learn more about this tree, and then share what I found about this little known (at least to me!) resin. 

Peru balsam resin and oilBalsam of Peru (also called Peru balsam and many other similar names) is a balsam – an aromatic oleoresin containing benzole or cinnamic acid – extracted from a tree in the Fabaceae family, Myroxylon balsamum Pereirae Group. The genus name is Greek for “fragrant wood.” Despite its common name, Peru balsam is mainly produced in El Salvador – the confusion comes from the fact that the Spanish originally shipped the product back to Europe out of a Peruvian port. A very similar product, balsam of Tolu, is extracted from Myroxylon balsamum Balsamum Group, and is mainly produced in Brazil and Venezuela. It has a similar, though gentler, fragrance profile. For Peru balsam, strips of bark are removed from the tree and boiled, with the resulting resinous material collected. Another harvest method is to make incisions in the bark and wrap cloth around the wounds to soak up the resin, then boil the cloth to separate the resin out. 

Commercially, Peru balsam is used as a fragrance and flavoring agent in many consumer goods. Colas, aperitifs, baked goods, flavored tobaccos, cough medicines, and dental cement can contain the oil for flavor. It lends its fragrance to deodorants, lotions, sunscreens, and shampoos, as well as fine perfumes like Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, Youth Dew of Lauder, and Elixir des Merveilles by Hermès. Drawing on its purported antiseptic qualities, Peru balsam has also been used in surgical dressings and wound sprays. 

coca-cola-4555178_1280 from Pixabay free for useBecause of its widespread application, I was surprised to learn that Peru balsam is considered one the top five contact allergens, and in 1982, the International Fragrance Association banned the use of crude Peru balsam in fragrances. From what I understand, this doesn’t extend to the essential oil distilled from the balsam, or to its use as a flavoring, so it can still be found in some foods and cosmetics. I found many case histories of fragrance- and  food-triggered dermatitis, where allergy testing produced positive results for Peru balsam. And interestingly, foods that have similar compounds to Peru balsam, such as cinnamon and vanilla, can also trigger this reaction.  It’s fascinating to me that there are some seemingly ubiquitous ingredients in many of the products we use everyday, but we just don’t know about.

Photo credits: 1) Myroxylon balsamum ({PD-US} Franz Eugen Köhler); 2) Peru balsam resin and essential oil (author’s photo); 3) Coca cola with Peru balsam (Pixabay)


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden 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.