Mexico Life
The filling is good for tacos or sandwiches. The filling is good for tacos or sandwiches.

Jamaica flowers are good for tacos and make a refreshing drink

What started out as a taco filling finished up being an excellent sandwich

It was a rainy day in Mazatlán – unusual, especially at this time of year – and then the power went out. What to do? Finally make those Jamaica tacos, I thought.

I’d wanted to share a recipe for a taco filling made from flores de jamaica, the dried red hibiscus flowers more commonly used in agua fresca, and had scoured the internet in search of one that made sense to me.

The few times I’d had these tacos in restaurants I’d loved them, and I appreciated the idea of using Jamaica so creatively, as a sort of contemporary Mexican take on a very traditional local ingredient. I found some recipes but wanted to try it myself before sharing it here. So I’d assembled all the ingredients a week or so ago and there they sat, untouched, on my kitchen counter.

Back to the rainy day. I started tweaking the recipe I’d found, substituting coconut oil and adding more garlic and fresh ginger. As the flowers and onions cooked and the kitchen started smelling really good, I thought the brightness of some fresh flavors and crunch – carrots, cilantro, avocado — would be good too.

Then – no tortillas! And now it was raining hard. I did have a ciabatta roll, though, and thought, what the heck, I’ll just make a sandwich.

With Jamaica flowers you can flavor water or fill tacos.
Fresh Jamaica flowers: once dried, they can flavor water or fill tacos.

Because the filling was so soft, I toasted the roll then put a thick layer of mashed avocado on the bottom. Then I added a big dollop of the fragrant, colorful filling, piled the carrots and cilantro on top, drizzled some salsa verde over it all and quickly clapped the top on. Sat down to eat — and my, oh my. Very messy – but very yummy.

So what are we talking about here? Flores de jamaica are hibiscus flowers, but not the big, colorful, decorative ones you have in your garden. This is a different variety, roselle hibiscus, or Jamaican sorrel, and the fresh flower is small and white with a red center. The plant is kind of a leggy bush and after the flowers drop off, the rubbery, ruby-red prehistoric looking pod that’s left is what’s dried to make Jamaica (pronounced hah-my-ka). And yes, they also make an iced drink with the flowers in Jamaica, usually with cinnamon and fresh ginger added.

Making a beverage from Jamaica flowers is so easy there’s really no reason to buy a packaged mix. And please don’t even consider a powdered mix! The flowers have lots of natural vitamin C and that pretty red color is natural too, although some packaged brands will add dye. Better to buy from a local grower if you can, in bulk. One more thing – the juice or wet flowers will stain, so do be careful.

Flores de Jamaica Taco or Sandwich Filling

The combination of coconut and olive oils makes for a delicate, special flavor, but you can use all olive oil if necessary. Much like a stir-fry, experienced cooks will have fun experimenting with other ingredients — bell peppers, fresh jícama, chipotle, shredded potato, even Italian seasonings — to make their own signature flavor.

  • 1 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup packed dried hibiscus (Jamaica) flowers
  • 4 cups water
  • 2-3 onions, julienned fine (you need 2 heaping cups)
  • 2-3 big cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 ripe avocados or fresh guacamole
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • Salsa verde (or whatever you like)
  • 6 corn tortillas or crusty whole grain bread or ciabatta rolls
  • Salt to taste

Rinse flowers well to get rid of sand and grit. In medium saucepan bring water to boil, add flowers and boil for five minutes; cover and let sit for another 10 minutes. Using a colander, strain liquid, which you can use for agua fresca. (See next recipe.) Set flowers aside.

Heat oils in a frying pan at medium high. Add onions, garlic and ginger; cook, stirring, till translucent and a little browned. Stir in the flowers and cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring to keep from sticking. Add a little salt.

To serve, use as a filling for tacos or sandwiches. Garnish with fresh avocado or guacamole, shredded carrot and chopped cilantro. Drizzle with your choice of hot sauce or salsa. Makes about three sandwiches or five or six tacos.

Jamaica Agua Fresca

Besides being a beautiful ruby-red color, Jamaica is rich in vitamin C and so easy to make. Change it up by adding sparkling water or a cup of pineapple or orange juice at the end.

  • 5 cups water
  • 2 cups (packed) dried Jamaica / hibiscus flowers
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice (optional)
  • Sugar or honey to taste

Rinse flowers well to remove dirt and grit. Bring water to boil in large pot. Add flowers; remove from heat, cover and let sit overnight. (No need to refrigerate.) Strain into pitcher, add sugar or honey to taste and lime juice if desired. Serve cold over ice.

Dried Jamaica flowers.
Dried Jamaica flowers.

Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Tea) Concentrate

This colorful syrup is also great to use in making cocktails. The flowers have a fair amount of pectin, and if you don’t add enough water or too much boils away, it may thicken or gel a little.

  • 1 cup packed dried Jamaica / hibiscus flowers
  • 7 cups water
  • 1½-2 cups sugar (or to taste)

Rinse flowers well to remove grit. Place in a pot with the water and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes, remove from heat, cover and let cool. Strain through a colander or mesh strainer, saving the liquid. Add liquid back to the pot, add the sugar and bring to a boil again, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour into a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. Keeps for up to two weeks.

To serve, dilute the concentrate with still or sparkling water with one part concentrate to three or four parts water. Makes about four cups.

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life, and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at whyweleftamerica.com.

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