Agua de Jamaica

It is difficult to find a restaurant in Cuernavaca without Agua de Jamaica (pronounced ha-mike-uh), which in English is Hibiscus Flower Tea, on their menu. As the waiter carries a tray filled with tall, icy glasses of agua de jamaica to a table, heads turn and mouths begin to water, and for good reason. The flavor of the jamaica flower is as engaging as it is visually beautiful.

Indeed, once the jewel-like ruby red agua de jamaica is chilled and served over ice, perhaps with a kiss of lime and a sprig of mint, you have the perfectly beautiful and refreshing warm afternoon delight. It is one of Mexico’s most popular drinks. It is right up there with Horchata (a sweetened rice mix of water, milk, white sugar, uncooked white long grain rice, vanilla extract, cinnamon or almond flavoring), Agua de Tamarindo (made of tamarindo pods, water and sugar), a Cubana (a mix of beer, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, Maggi or soy sauce) and the Michelada (cold beer and lime juice).

As for taste, it has the tangy sweetness of red zinger, or a little like cranberry juice. Add a squeeze or two of lime juice and it becomes almost punch like. Some people have been known to add jamaica flowers to margaritas or for some strange reason adding a shot of tequila or mezcal to the drink, but in my estimation that would be a waste of Mexico’s most beloved beverages.

You will also find that jamaica flowers can be used to infuse Italian granitas, sherbets, sorbets, as well as to make jamaica jellies, and candies.

Not only is the drink easily made at home, you will delight your family members and friends with this slightly quirky, but tasteful beverage. If you visit the mercado you will likely find large baskets overflowing with the dried maroon petals of the jamaica flower. In the grocery stores, you will find plastic bags filled with the flowers. You will probably find the cost much less at the mercado and in most cases fresher, as well.

Hibiscus tea (an infusion actually) is popular the world over. Hibiscus flowers grow in tropical and semi-tropical climates from the banks of the Nile River to Cuernavaca.

But, wait, there more to agua de jamaica than just the wonderful taste, as there are other benefits. It is a natural diuretic that is rich in vitamin C, and has been used for centuries in herbal medicines for alleviating digestive problems, controlling high blood pressure, improving circulatory disorders, and tempering fevers.

If you unfortunately do not live in the City of Eternal Spring, you can probably find dried hibiscus flowers in almost any Mexican market (ask for ‘flor de jamaica’) and you can even order them online and have them delivered almost anywhere in the world.

Here is a favorite Agua de Jamaica recipe with some options that you may enjoy. Since Agua de Jamaica can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator, it is most commonly made in batches of 2 liters.

Agua de Jamaica Recipe

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 5 minutes
  • Infusion time: 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on strength
  • Yield: 2 liters (2.1 quarts)

Ingredients

2 liters (2.1 quarts) of water
3/4 to 1 cup natural cane sugar
     or if you prefer, sweeten with refined sugar, any natural sweetener of your choice including honey
250 grams dried jamaica flowers
1/2 cinnamon stick (optional)
A few thin slices of ginger (optional)
A few Allspice berries (optional)
Lime juice (optional)
4 additional cups of cold water
More sugar to taste
1 Lime or an orange thinly sliced for garnish
Sprigs of mint leaves for garnish

Method

Note: Hibiscus flowers have been used as a dye for thousand of years and will stain almost any thing they come into contact with. Be sure to use a pot that will not stain. The flowers and the liquid also have the potential to stain your countertop, wooden spoons, and clothing, so please take precautions.

Place the jamaica leaves in a colander and rinse well with cold running water to clean the flowers. This is necessary whether you purchased them loose in the mercado or in the plastic bag in a grocery, as neither have been cleaned.

Bring the 2 liters of water to a boil in a saucepan.

Remove the water from the heat and add the sugar and optional ingredients of cinnamon stick, ginger slices and/or the allspice berries to the water, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Next add the dried flowers, again stirring until they are covered with the water. Place a lid over the pot and steep to allow for the infusion of the jamaica flowers for up to 2 hours depending on the strength desired, stirring occasionally.

Pour the infusion through a strainer into a pitcher or jug, being careful to not spill any of the liquid on your countertop or clothing. It is suggested placing the pitcher in an inch of water in the sink and wearing an apron to avoid the staining effect.

Discard the used jamaica flowers, cinnamon stick, ginger slices and the allspice berries.

At this point, the concentrate can be stored in the refrigerator until the drink is desired.

Note: Some people will use the flowers again with 25-percent less water and 50-percent more steeping time to gain a bit more infusion from them.

Serving

Considering that you have pre-made the 2 liters of concentrate.

Add the remaining 4 cups of cold water to the concentrate. Or as alternative, you can use chilled soda water for a unique bubbly version of Agua de Jamaica.

Taste and adjust based on your personal preference. You can add a bit more sugar if you think you need it, or more water if you feel like the jamaica is too overpowering. You should not allow the sugar to overpower the refreshing natural tartness of the jamaica flower. You can also add a bit of lime juice to the drink for a bit more punch.

If a coated rim is desired on the tall glasses, place sugar in a shallow dish. Moisten the rim of the glass with a lime, then dip in sugar. An alternative is to use tamarind powder or even salt, depending on the taste. The glasses can be pre-chilled, which will give them a slight frost on the outside. If you are pre-chilling the glasses, remove them from the freezer for serving by placing the fingers on the inside of the glass and lifting them from the freezer, then place your other hand under the glass while you carry them to the serving tray.

Carefully fill each of the tall glasses to a point just under the sugared rim, garnish with a slice of lime or orange and serve to your guests. Viola, you are the host supreme.

Enjoy!

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About G. William Hood

G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca with his pet cockatiel, Pepe.
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