Alhambra's Sunday Morning Farmer's Market
I rarely come across foods that startle me. In most cases, my brain already has a certain expectation before it hits my mouth. Even if it's a completely new food, I can generally assume that fruits will be sweet, vegetables will be earthy and that I can trust the farmer and the countless people who have eaten this before. So when I see a crowd of market-goers around a table of vegetables, I take this as a good sign. But in this case, nobody was really buying anything. Some would take a sample, awkwardly force a smile and sheepishly walk away. Others would buy up bunches without hesitation. After trying a sample, I can see why this would be so polarizing. The first taste actually set me back a bit, as my brain didn't expect a tangy sourness to come from an unassuming green leaf. But the flavor was so unique that I instantly became hooked.
The Roselle plant (aka sour spinach, red sorrel, Jamaica sorrel) is a perennial herb native to West Africa. Part of the species Hibiscus, it is most famous for the red, flowering buds that are harvested for jams, beverages and tea. While it is known as "red sorrel" in many parts of the world, it is not actually related to the Sorrel plant. So why the confusion with the name? From what I've found, it may just stem from a jumbling in translation as it made its way across the globe (if anyone can clear this up, please let us know in the comments).
Roselle leaves are available through the summer until September, as they flourish in hot, sunny weather. When picking, choose those with bright, green leaves with sturdy red stems. Avoid any that are overly limp with shriveled leaves (as these are sold in bunches, you'll end up with a few lifeless leaves regardless, so just aim for a good looking majority). Do not wash until you are ready to cook them, as excess moisture may initiate spoilage. Left whole in the bunch, it should last about a week in the fridge. When you are ready to use them, pick off the tender stems and leaves, discarding the harder, woody lower stem. While a full bunch of leaves may seem like a lot, they do wilt down quite a bit as they cook.
The flavor of the leaves is a mouthwatering sour tang, sort of like taking a mouthful of spinach followed by a shot of lemon juice. It can be used in place of tamarind in many recipes. In India, the Gongura is a close relative to Roselles, and is typically served in curries and also as a pickled condiment. The sour tangy-ness works very well with heavy, spicy flavors, so I would definitely try it in a spicy masala mutton or gongura chicken. Even though the weather has warmed up quite a bit, it's worth trying roselle in a green soup, including other leafy greens and broccoli. I opted to try an authentic Burmese dish called Chin Baung Kyaw, fried roselle leaves with bamboo shoots and dry shrimp. It was a huge explosion of flavors — sour, spicy and pungent; all I needed was a big bowl of plain white rice and a cooling glass of agua de jamaica.
Have you tried roselle/red sorrel leaves? Do you have a favorite recipe or use? Let us hear them in the comments, or send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org!