The seasonal menu at Chef Christopher Kearse’s former South Philadelphia restaurant Will was home to an ingredient at once common and rare: hibiscus.
Kearse’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras & Rabbit Terrine, an a la carte dish of crispy beef tendon with black truffle sauce and hibiscus pickled rhubarb, was one of the city’s only dishes that incorporated the bright, edible flower. Will closed this past June, but the chef isn’t leaving the ingredient behind. Forsythia, Kearse’s new restaurant opening in Old City on Friday, Aug. 23, will join a handful of other local establishments offering hibiscus spirits.
It’s part of a national cocktail trend, says Constance Kirker, coauthor of Edible Flowers: A Global History and a former Pennsylvania State University art history professor. Amid a growing interest in natural cooking, restaurants and bars are embracing edible flowers. That includes safe varieties of hibiscus, with its “pleasantly tart” cranberry-like taste and “strong deep red” color, Kirker says.
Hibiscus can be dried, boiled, candied, powered, and even eaten fresh, but because it requires a tropical climate to grow, local availability was limited. In Philadelphia, it’s traditionally appeared on the menus of Mexican and Latin American restaurants whose regional communities both grow and use it, mostly notably in agua frescas — water blended with fruit, lime juice, and sweetener.
Now these edible flowers are popping up in Whole Foods and are being incorporated into everything from desserts to pantry essentials. If you’re interested in testing the waters on edible flowers, here are a few sweet ways you can introduce the natural cooking ingredient into your everyday eating.
While Hibiscus has long been used in hot teas, this seasonal iced tea from Bower Cafe balances the sweetness of strawberry and the tart of hibiscus for a light, refreshing experience perfect for quenching that summer thirst. Request mint and top it with seltzer for a cool, invigorating effect.
For a sweeter take, stop into Fiesta Acapulco (1122 S. 9th Street) for its hibiscus water, Agua de Jamaica, made in-house with boiled hibiscus, or try the Hibiscus-Blood Orange-Mango Aguas Frescas at Cuba Libre (10 S. 2nd Street).
7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 263 S 10th Street, $3.75, 267-758-5536, bower-cafe.com
The signature bold coloring of hibiscus is on full display in this petite French dessert from the Liberté Lounge at Rittenhouse Square’s Sofitel Hotel. Its floral notes are subtle, allowing the creamy sweetness of the whipped cream and melted white chocolate to dominate. The verrine is available with the Lounge’s tea-time package, which features mimosa and champagne upgrades.
For something as sweet but more filling, keep an eye on the Instagram account for Dottie’s Donuts (4529 Springfield Ave.). When ingredients are in, Dottie’s offers a hibiscus and lemon-glazed vegan doughnut with an eye-popping icing.
11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Saturday, 120 South 17th St., starts at $29 per person (available on request), 215-569-8300, sofitel-philadelphia.com
Lil’ Pop Shop offers a nondairy spin on the growing market of floral-flavored ice cream at both its West Philly (265 South 44th St.) and Rittenhouse Square locations. Available year-round, this sweet treat infuses its smooth coconut milk base with a mild but stimulating hibiscus flavor.
If you’re looking for a dairy option that plays up the naturally vibrant pinks and reds of hibiscus, try Little Baby’s Ice Cream cherry hibiscus flavor. The handmade ice cream is available only during the summer season at Little Baby world headquarters (2311 Frankford Ave.) and three other Philadelphia locations.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 229 S 20th St., $3, 215-309-5822, lilpopshop.com
Sticky Situations’ hibiscus honey offers a full-bodied flavor and aroma that is perfect for green tea or in glazes for pan-seared tuna and pork tenderloin. Produced from flowers grown and pollinated on organic, chemical-free farms, the warm pink honey is soaked in drums alongside harvested hibiscus flowers, giving it a stronger flavor and color.
Infused with hibiscus and lavender, the Rozendal Vinegar at Cardenas (942 S. 9th St.) is another way to add a hint of hibiscus to your meals, especially salads. The Spice and Tea Exchange (103 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield, N.J.) has thick and creamy Hibiscus Ginger butter, which features crushed flowers and is perfect as a bread spread or on top of cooked vegetables and fish.