In a Glass, a Taste of Senegal

Brooklyn-based, Dakar-born Pierre Thiam shares his bissap recipe.

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Sorrel, roselle and hibiscus are only a few of the names for the same sour little flower.

Throughout West Africa—as well as in neighborhoods including Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and East Flatbush—this Hibiscus sabdariffa is the main ingredient of bissap: a thirst-quenching and bold fuchsia-colored drink. “When visiting any Senegalese household, you will most certainly be offered homemade bissap, one of the country’s most popular drinks,” Brooklyn-based, Dakar-born Pierre Thiam assures. “Dried red and white hibiscus petals … bring a bright, tart, cranberry-like flavor to many drinks and dishes.”

You’ll likely find different pre-made bissap brews, blends and individual ingredients in the shops, markets, cafés and restaurants lining Brooklyn’s Fulton Street east of Franklin Avenue or on Harlem’s 116th Street, also known as Little Senegal. There’s no one recipe; different traditions improvise with different and optional flavorings like vanilla extract, fresh-grated ginger, pineapple juice and orange flower water.

Thiam—a Senegalese chef, restaurateur and cookbook author—prefers adding nana mint to his brew (the same mint used in the West African ataya tea ritual) but also recommends peppermint as a suitable replacement. The following recipe from his Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl cookbook is a refreshing, simply-made drink to stow in your fridge year-round. As he recommends, it goes down well with a little rum, too:

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Mint Hibiscus Cooler

Serves 6

1 quart plus 2 cups water
¼ pound dried red hibiscus flowers
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, plus extra sprigs for garnish
½ cup honey or sugar

In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of the water, the hibiscus flowers and mint to a boil. Turn off the heat, stir in the honey, and let cool.

Add the remaining 1 quart water. Set aside to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain into a pitcher and refrigerate. Serve cold over ice, garnished with extra mint.

Note: With the addition of light rum, this recipe makes a wonderful punch for a summer BBQ. Serve in a pitcher full of ice with a bit of rum, extra mint and fresh lime slices.

Recipe copyright © 2015 Pierre Thiam. Reprinted with permission from Senegal by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit, published by Lake Isle Press, Inc., 2015.

Adriana Gallo contributed reporting and illustrations.

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.