Yesterday was the opening of Taste of Chicago, a five-day showcase for the most classic and the most creative restaurants on this city’s diverse food scene.
Along with staples like the Chicago-famous hot dogs, deep dish pizza, Eli’s cheesecake, foot-long corn dogs, and Billy Goat Inn’s cheezborgers, there were pleasant surprises, new inventions, and deep-fried flights of fancy. To name a few: plantain with goat, coconut ice, deep fried Chinese bread, pork-filled banana dumplings, mustard-fried catfish, baked crab cake nuggets.
After a few tastes and some samples and lots of eyeball gorging, I put 10 tickets towards a Rainbow Waffle Cone well-deserving of capital letters, a towering five flavors of sherbet that melted immediately all down my arm. Best self-birthday present of the day.
And then, right in the sweaty, sticky, heady midst of it all, while I was drifting through air pockets redolent of parmesan and garlic and ranch dressing, a beautiful sight caught my eye. Alongside jerk chicken and jollof with oxtails a sign showed bissap sorbet, a sweet ruby-colored West African dream frozen and served in a little plastic cup. This was from Iyanze, a West African restaurant in Uptown that I haven’t (yet) visited.
Jus de bissap, or hibiscus flower juice (though it’s prepared more like a tea), was my favorite revitalizing midday treat in Senegal. There are two colors of hibiscus flower, white and red, but the red is used to make juice that is a deep jewel-tone. The taste is similar to cranberry juice but not as tart, and I like it much better.
My friends’ family in Mbour had a plot across from their house where they grew bissap, and when I arrived it was time for the harvest. The papa and some help brought in tubs of spidery flower heads and everyone pitched in for hours a day to remove and reserve the edible outer part of the flower. Apart from a few handfuls used fresh for cooking, the hibiscus was then spread out on the roof of the house to dry in the sun. After a few days of this, we made pitchers of jus de bissap by simply steeping the flowers in hot water with sugar and fresh mint, then chilling the mixture.
When it’s hot and sandy and you’ve just eaten more than your fill of poulet Yassa, there’s nothing better. Jus de bissap can be found about everywhere in Senegal, sold in restaurants, on the street, in the markets, even at the tortoise reserve. The first time I tasted it counts among my most vibrant memories of the country.
As delicious as I remember jus de bissap being, I was delighted to see Iyanze’s sorbet at the Taste of Chicago. Making a frozen juice dessert seems like an elegant spin on the refreshing cold drink. And it was just as good as I remember.
The recipe below makes juice ready-to-drink, but you might also make a concentrated version with half the amount of water to mix with sparkling water, tonic, or ginger ale. I have also included Gourmet‘s recipe for bissap sorbet. I have seen dried hibiscus flower for sale in stores such as Trader Joe’s, and you could also try to find them in Mexican grocery stores. This juice is also popular in Mexican restaurants (though I have to say that there it’s often too watered down).
Jus de bissap (Hibiscus juice)
- 2-3 cups dried red hibiscus
- 2 liters (8.5 cups) water
- 1-2 cup sugar
- a couple of sprigs of fresh mint
- Heat the water in a saucepan or pot. When the water boils, add the hibiscus and turn off the heat. Let the flowers steep for ten to fifteen minutes.
- Strain the liquid into a pitcher and add sugar and mint. Let cool completely and chill in the refrigerator, or serve with ice.
- Garnish with mint leaves.
Bissap Sorbet (Hibiscus Tea Sorbet)
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup organic dried hibiscus flowers
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
- Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in hibiscus and remove from heat, then let steep 15 minutes.
- Pour hibiscus tea through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl, pressing hard on and then discarding solids. Return tea to saucepan and bring to a boil with sugar and a pinch of salt, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
- Transfer mixture to a metal bowl, then set bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and stir until cold, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Stir in lemon and lime juices and freeze in ice cream maker. Transfer sorbet to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours.