Sorrel, bissap, agua de Jamaica — the drink made from hibiscus flowers goes by many names and variations, and abounds in Washington-area restaurants. In Caribbean places, you’ll encounter sorrel, sweetened and often spiced with cinnamon and cloves (it’s a Christmastime staple in some of the island nations). In West African spots, you’ll find bissap, also called sobolo. And in Mexican and Central American eateries, you’ll see agua de Jamaica (pronounced huh-MY-kuh) nestled among other aguas frescas (fresh waters). This version ranges from sweet to pleasantly tart.
“There are many ways that it’s made throughout the [African] diaspora,” says Walter Berry, a radio host on WEAA (88.9) who goes by Papa WaBe and learned to make the drink from a Rastaman. Berry’s version is the least sweet we found — “It doesn’t need to be camouflaged with a lot of sugar” — and is sold through a handful of restaurants and stores. For a Panamanian version, head to Esencias Panameñas, where chef-owner Yadira Stamp makes sorrell con jengibre, sweet, spicy and ginger-laced. Wherever you go, know that the drink takes well to fortification: Stamp pairs hers with Seco Herrerano, a Panamanian spirit distilled from sugar cane. It’s her most popular signature cocktail.
The spice adds a bit of warmth and sweet scent to chef Alisa Plaza’s Trinidadian sorrel, found at her restaurant, Sunrise Caribbean, north of Petworth.
Sweetness varies by who’s doing the stirring. Less sugar results in a somewhat tart, refreshing take, as in the agua de Jamaica from Tacos El Costalilla in Alexandria. The syrupy bissap at Senegalese restaurant Chez Dior in Hyattsville is almost berry-like.
The dried calyx of Hibiscus sabdariffa, more commonly known as hibiscus, sorrel or roselle, creates a deep fuchsia drink that can be bracingly tart. The plant is thought to be native to West Africa. Despite a shared name, it is not to be confused with the herb sorrel, a sour leafy green related to rhubarb.
Rather than being overpowering, a touch of cloves adds a hint of mystery and depth. The spice, along with cinnamon, is most likely to be in Caribbean versions, but not those from Mexico or Central America.
When this rhizome is added, you’ll find it lends a pleasant spice, subtle sweetness and alluring complexity.
Find bissap in Hyattsville at Chez Dior (5124 Baltimore Ave., 240-696-5907) and in Woodbridge at Le Bon Grill African Restaurant (1972 Daniel Stuart Sq., 703-499-8010). Find sorrel in the District at Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant (5329 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-291-2949) and Esencias Panameñas (3322 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-688-7250). Find Papa WaBe’s So Real Sorrel in the District at Secrets of Nature (3923 South Capitol St. SW, 202-562-0041); and in Maryland at Island Quizine locations in Windsor Mill, Pikesville, Towson and Woodlawn, and Tropicana Eatery locations in Silver Spring and Temple Hills. Find agua de Jamaica in the District at Taqueria Nacional (1409 T St. NW, 202-299-1122) and El Rinconcito Cafe (1129 11th St. NW, 202-789-4110), and in Alexandria at Tacos El Costalilla (7862 Richmond Hwy., 703-704-9088).