Bissap - health tea and natural colouring
by Monique Johanna VAN MEEL
Health tea made from Hibiscus sabdariffa is served all day and
every day all over West Africa. This refreshing and invigorating drink, the
colour of vin rosshould be arriving on the European market soon.
Traditionally called bissap, Guinean sorrel, karkadr Abyssinian tea, it is
made from Hibiscus sabdariffa - which has many a surprise in store...
In Australia and Africa since 4000 BC
Where does the plant come from? Africa or India probably,
although no-one knows for certain, for Hibiscus sabdariffa goes back to 4000 BC,
when it was common almost all over the tropics and the sub-tropics in both
northern and southern hemispheres, from Sudan to Australia, via India, Egypt,
Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan, Florida, Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean and Guyana.
Italian soldiers, who took infusions of the red calyxes of
Hibiscus sabdariffa to prevent infection after drinking polluted water during
the war in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936, took a fancy to this (Abyssinian or
health) tea and brought it to Europe.
Health tea or pink tea, as it is sometimes called, is very
popular with Moslems too and they drink it a lot during Ramadan.
As Mr Diop, Director-General of the Institute of Food
Technology, says, the tradition of using this plant in West Africa goes
back about a century. People from Senegal to Nigeria used to grow bissap
and make rope from the fibres and fishermen on the Rivers Senegal and Niger made
this rope into huge nets which completely blocked the river.
The leaves make vegetables and the juice extracted after cooking
can be put on cuts and wounds or taken as a diuretic and urinary antiseptic. Oil
from the seeds is often used as a tonic and diuretic and the roots as laxatives
and purgatives. The fleshy calyx can be put into tarts and puddings and makes
excellent jam, jelly (akin to red currant jelly) and coulis to put on cakes and
in vanilla sorbet.
The plant has proven therapeutic qualities. It is an
antispasmodic and a mild-hypotensive, it cures worms and fights germs
efficiently and, let us not forget, it affects the speed of alcohol absorption
and helps combat cancer.
Two types - red calyx and green calyx
The green one, which is used in rice and millet dishes, helps
the digestion and combats fatigue. The red one is widely used in the
pharmacopoeia. The plant is an annual one, which grows a metre high and has a
strong stem and a calyx which are either both green or both red. It is rich in
calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin C.
A 100% natural colouring
The flowers are harvested about three weeks after they open and
yields of up to 17 tonnes per hectare of young shoots, 6300 kg of fresh calyxes
and 800 kg of dry calyxes can be expected.
Then comes the lengthy process of turning the fresh calyxes into
concentrate. This is a job reserved for the women, who cut the base, take off
the capsule, separate the calyxes and rinse them to remove all the impurities,
especially sand. The calyxes are then left to macerate before being put through
a centrifugal extractor and turned into a thick, bright red, sharp,
The pulp is then cooked with its weight in sugar to produce a
dark red, slightly acid marmalade with very little aroma. Jelly is made in the
same way. The pigment dissolves easily in water or alcohol and can be used to
give a high quality, natural colour to syrups and liqueurs.
Senegal as a bissap exporter
Senegal has recently gone into marketing bissap concentrate and
syrup. These products, which are made by well-tried methods in the laboratory of
the Institute of Food Technology in Dakar, have all the flavour and aroma of the
plant as well as its bright red colouring.
The ITA supplies more than 8000 litres of concentrate, the
equivalent of 15 t of fresh calyxes, to SOCAS (the Skotane food company or
the Baobab farm and dairy, as it is more properly called). This is the most
modern farm in the whole of West Africa and it provides more than 100 litres of
bissap juice per day for Dakar alone. It takes 1.5 1 of concentrate to make 1001
of juice. Bissap is packaged by the same machines which put a million litres of
fresh milk into cartons for distribution throughout Senegal every year.
SOCAS is anxious to produce more than its annual 4200 t of
tomato concentrate at the Savoigne plant in northern Senegal and is also hoping
to use the machinery there to prepare bissap concentrate and syrup.
More than 30 t of red calyxes are exported to Italy, Switzerland
and Germany and the demand is in fact far higher than that, as these countries
use a lot of the natural colouring in their food and agriculture industries and
in confectionery and pharmaceuticals. One German laboratory has just come up
with a 100% natural pink sweet made of gum arabic and Hibiscus sabdariffa. .
There is no doubt that bissap will be joining the raw materials
market, which will mean that the countries which produce it can do more to
develop the plant which could well turn the world of synthetics over to natural