Enjoying Hibiscus Tea in Egypt

When I took the trip Egypt and the Eternal Nile with Overseas Adventure Travel, I had two days on my own before joining the group. These two days afforded me time to see the pyramids at Saqqara and Dasher with a private guide, experience the uniqueness of Garbage City in Cairo, and enjoy as drink that was highlighted to me in a perfume shop: hibiscus tea. It is also known as bisap in Senegal, where it’s considered the national drink.

I had never heard of this glass of sweetness before, but it originated in Egypt and the Sudan, and is now also popular in West Africa, Asia and the Americas. It’s not wildly popular in the US, nor did it originate here in any way, but it was such a delight in Egypt, I drank it every time it was offered. It wasn’t showcased on the OAT trip as it was on my private tour, so I felt like I was in on an Egyptian secret.

Hibiscus tea is a combination of crimson or magenta colored calcyes or sepals and the hibiscus flower the roselle. In Egypt it’s referred to as karkade, which is a sweet hibiscus juice that was popular with the pharaohs. It’s made of hibiscus flower petals. It has a cranberry juice like taste, but not as tart, and for centuries it’s been lauded for medicinal properties such as lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, aiding in weight loss, and having antioxidant properties. If it sounds too good to be true in terms of its health value, there’s a good chance it is.

The Cleveland Institute did studies on hibiscus tea and did in fact find a mild lowering in these essential levels responsible for maintaining good health. However, the study designed to discover the curative effects of the red tea, showed it didn’t substitute for traditional methods of lowering blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol or weight.

It is, however, a delight to drink, especially on a hot Egyptian day when a weary traveler would rather have a taste of something local rather than say, Pepsi or Coke. I had my first sip in fact, inside a perfume store in Giza literally down the street from the Great Pyramids where I was also treated to local fragrances along with the tea. I made sure I was under no obligation to purchase anything before I had my first sip, since the stop was at the tail end of a private tour to other pyramids. It was also fun in that we made a stop to a papyrus shop right afterwards. 

When the Egyptians make the brew, they literally let the hibiscus leaves soak in water, then add sugar to taste. The brew I drank was pleasantly sweet. It can be served hot or cold. What interested me later, was to discover that I had been enjoying hibiscus tea in my own home without even knowing it when I used to consume a tea called Red Zinger made by Celestial Seasonings.

But if you have a hibiscus plant and want to enjoy the tastes of ancient Egypt without buying a tea bag, there is this recipe. For me, it was a wonderful day of desert pyramids, perfumes, papyrus, and my goodness, seeing the Great Pyramids of Giza right off the busy Giza Street! It’s the kind of travel memories are made of.

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