And During Christmas Time… Sorrel!

Sorrel in its resplendant beauty with the traditional piece of ginger to prepare the drink.

Raspadura, or unrefined sugar cakes with its
very own Panamanian flavor.

At last it is Christmas season and the thousands of sacks containing agricultural products in the farmer’s market (Abasto) have turned a seasonal red with the production of Sorrel or saril (pronounced sah-ríl), as it has come to be known amongst the Spanish speaking people here! It is the principal raw material for the preparation of our traditional Christmas fruit drink. Known in Puerto Rico, Mexico and other parts of Central America as Jamaica, this plant/flower is planted here in Panama on June 24, the day of the patron saint San Juan Bautista and harvested in early December just in time for Holiday festivities.

The plant calyxes that simulate a flower petal (sepals) of the Hibiscus sabdariffa are used to prepare the extremely popular drink, typical of the people’s Christmas Eve tradition that was introduced in the country by our Jamaican forefathers during the early years of the construction of the Panama Canal.

Originating in Africa, the bush or hedge can reach three to five meters high and is grown mainly west of the country, specifically in the region of Capira and San Carlos. Although this crop does not require much care or irrigation, during times of strong drought production can be retarded. After sowing, June 24, you only have to wait five months to start harvesting. This fruit, which is also grown in Herrera, Veraguas and Coclé provinces can harvest until the middle of March.

The price per pound goes for 50¢ and the largest movement in sales is purported to be from December 12 on. Last year, the price of the sack (quintal) reached $15 in the Abasto market and the vendors expect even greater movement of the product for 2009.

You can also find tea made from “saril,” which I have also purchased but, what I wasn’t aware of until recently was that there is a delicious coffee made from the seed of the sorrel. The seeds of the capsule (between 15 and 25 seeds) are extracted, roasted on a plate, then placed in the sun and finally milled. The pound of seed goes for four dollars. The largest producers in the world are China and Thailand and this fruit is extremely popular and well liked all over Mexico as well as Central America and Panama. In Mexico, in fact, it is sold by street vendors all year round and they add a little cinnamon to the mixture. It is extremely popular there.

I remember with great nostalgia how my grandmother, Fanny, used to prepare a pot of Sorrel during Christmas and basically any time of the year, if you dry some of the petals and save them dry. She would first gather her other ingredients like the ginger, cloves, raspadura (optional, of course) or some brown sugar and set them aside. The ginger slices are left to set at room temperature for a couple hours before using; the longer fresh cut ginger sets the stronger its flavor becomes.

Sorrel Drink

In 2 quarts of water boil the ginger slices. Once it reaches a rolling boil, add sorrel and cloves- boil for 20 to 30 minutes. Turn off flame and let mixture steep overnight tightly covered. Next day strain out the steeped mixture, add brown sugar and raspadura mixture (made by boiling together a little cake of raspadura and a half pound of brown sugar until dissolved) and stir into the brew. Since this is a very spicy drink, you can water down the mixture a bit, if you prefer. Refrigerate and serve cold with a lot of ice. Of course, many of the holiday revellers add rum or other stronger components for a kick but I prefer it as a fruit drink and enjoy it right along with the rest of the children during Christmas and New Years.

No Christmas, even today, would be worthwhile without the traditional Westindian style buns, Yuca Pone (Cassava Pone) and other Caribbean baked delights that festoon the holiday table and that were no less conspicuous than the enormous turkey and ham usually purchased at the Zone commissary in my day.

These traditions along with the drinking of Sorrel were all adopted by the Panamanian people from their Westindian neighbors who made Christmas a truly special and festive time of year in the small country of Panama.

(BTW Sarina, over at has some incredibly good and healthy recipes for many of these holiday delights. Check her out!)

This story continues.

6 responses to “And During Christmas Time… Sorrel!

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    I have got to see if our markets have got Sorrel. The ginsing is common but I do not remember the sorrel any where, But then I was not looking for it either…

    I will now.

    Svet loves a good hot drink!

  2. Anita Cumberbatch

    Christmas in Panama, what a delight!
    Sight, sounds and aroma all intertwined, so distinct that it is practically difficult to be duplicated anywhere else.

    And let us not forget Mother Nature with its sweet Panamanian Christmas breeze.

    From late November, early December, we started with mincing and mixing fruits with brandy and liquor getting it ready for our famous fruit cakes.

    By December 23 and 24, Rainbow folks began baking their fruit cakes ; and the aromas of baking coming from the homes is one of my most memorable moments of growing up there.

    I have not tasted fruit cake like those of Panamanian West Indians.

    Today many West Indians(not of Pananamanian descents) bake a black cake.
    I do not find the black cake equal in taste to the fruit cake made by Panamanians who can truly bake fruit cakes.
    It is interesting to note that Latin Panamanians learned to bake from us.
    Some of them after living in close proximity with West Indian people have inherited the fruit cake as a Christmas tradition.

    Sending Christmas cards out to friends and relatives is another tradition Panamanians inherited from the West Indians.

    I plan to do a study on many of the traditions Panamanians have inherited from West Indians.

    It is amazing how modern Panama, a Latin country, has been so influenced by the English and French speaking Caribbean nations .

    Un cordial saludo,

  3. Kyle and Svet,

    Since Sorrel is classified a Hibiscus you might ask for Hibiscus tea and then check to see if it is Sorrel, which has a distinct flavor. If you can't find it,we are prepared to take orders!:-)

  4. Anita,

    And I thought I was just biased. Seriously, I have never found fruitcake like the kind made in Panama in my youth anywhere- not in New York, no where. It is truly great and full of flavor.

    It is true, the beautiful traditions of Christmas in the Black Canal Zone have left their mark on Panamanian society and people love to exchange Christmas cards, set a beautiful holiday table and they just have to have that fragrant Christmas tree. The "Saril" and the Souse cannot be absent from the holiday table either.

    Thank you for bringing back good memories.


  5. Panamanian people need too take back our history and original culture. WI speak creole and Panama need to recognize it like Costa Rica!

  6. Thank you for the wonderful memories.I would also like to add, do not forget the tradition of painting our apartments and putting up new curtains and linoleums.