Food Trends: Palatable Plant

Prized for its versatility, hibiscus is happening.


Coveted in Caribbean jams, African punches, Mexican candy, and global teas, hibiscus is a veritable botanical Zelig. Look! There it is dried and infused in custards, cocktails, and in syrups for glazes and sorbets. There it is again, ground for spice rubs on meats and fish. And look over there—it’s pickled for a vegetable side dish. In its native tropical climes, hibiscus is prized for its floral-nuanced, mildly tart flavor as much as for its lustrous color, and these days, it’s blooming in the northern kitchens of innovative chefs.

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“It’s something different,” says Phil McGrath of Iron Horse Grill (20 Wheeler Ave, Pleasantville 914-741-0717). “I like to offer people new tastes.” And so he oven-dries the petals and infuses them overnight in crème anglaise for his hibiscus crème brûlée, grinds them with oatmeal for tuiles, and makes syrup for his bar’s spring berry Cosmo and hibiscus grappa. But oven-drying is not crucial. “You can do the same at home with a hibiscus tea bag,” he notes. “Just put the bag into a simple syrup [equal parts sugar and water, boiled] or warm crème anglaise for an hour or longer.”

At Plates (121 Myrtle Blvd, Larchmont 914-832-1244), owner and chef Matthew Karp isn’t as forthcoming. Hibiscus is “one of the secret ingredients” is all he’ll concede, in both his Sunday night special’s barbecue sauce and the rub for meats and fish he smokes in winter for Plates’ Saturday outdoor tent market. “Hibiscus has a natural affinity to citrus and cherries,” he says. “I like its aromatic components and acid-tempering qualities.” His ardor is unleashed in a hibiscus-infused duck consommé partnering foie gras gelée, in a dessert of frozen yogurt crowning a carrot tuile cone, and in a clove-suffused spice rub for veal.

No slouch in the ardor department himself, Chef Peter Kelly anoints X20 Xaviars on the Hudson’s (71 Water Grant St, Yonkers 914-965-1111) sweetbreads with a glaze of handcrafted vinegar, huckleberries, and hibiscus, waxing rhapsodic about its “exotic floral note” and hue of “violet blush.”

It’s all wonderfully refined, but at its heart, hibiscus is down-home Caribbean. Forget Margaritaville—the flower there, called sorrel, anchors most cocktails of choice. Indulge yourself at Jamaican-focused Ripe Kitchen & Bar (151 Sanford Blvd, Mount Vernon 914-665-7689), and then move on to Chef Nigel Spence’s bread pudding. The dessert is kissed with a lush hibiscus sauce scented with mango and ginger, its fuchsia hue as dazzling as the Jamaican sun. Mon, I’m feeling some ardor now myself.

Ripe Kitchen & Bar’s aromatic
hibiscus cocktail.

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