James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Drink of Wine‑Colored Flowers Spiked With Whiskey

A Drink of Wine‑Colored Flowers Spiked With Whiskey

Bissap in Dakar

Bissap, a purple-red juice made from dried flowers of the hibiscus, is the national drink of Senegal. I had arrived in Dakar in mid-July as Ramadan was drawing to a close. I received a warm welcome, for which I soon learned the Wolof word. Téranga meant hospitality; the Senegalese are renowned for their warmth. I received plenty of hospitality in the form of endless glasses of chilled bissap. A cold drink on a hot afternoon is always a delight, and bissap was the perfect tonic for Dakar’s heat and humidity.

I first had bissap three years ago in Addis Ababa, at the house of my Senegalese friend Marie. We had met quite randomly in Arat Kilo in the heart of Ethiopia’s government district, two magpies drawn to a jewelery stall on the side of the square. United by our mutual interest in African history—the Arat Kilo monument was built to commemorate Ethiopia’s liberation from Italy—and common language—she was from Senegal and I spoke French—we became fast friends. A few days after we met, she invited me to her house for a meal and offered me a cold glass of bissap to go with it.

The hibiscus is a tropical plant whose many virtues are celebrated from Haiti to Malaysia. Big, red hibiscus flowers were in bloom everywhere I went on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, where I had visited the House of Slaves, the monument to human suffering was Senegal’s most popular tourist destination. During a walk in search of wax-print fabric in the HLM quartier, a new American friend and I stumbled across an old woman selling dried hibiscus beside a street barber. The wine-colored flowers spilled out of the tattered sack onto the tarmac.

Upon my return to Nairobi, I sought out authentic Senegalese bissap. I found it at Le Palanka, with a twist. The cocktail menu at the aforementioned purveyor of fine African cuisine had some interesting and inventive mixes. I asked Stanley the bartender for a bissap-based cocktail. He proposed Évasions, made from bissap, whiskey, and lime juice. At first sip, I tasted the slight tartness of bissap, which is easily remedied by a sweetener. Stanley sweetened the drink. Now it was perfect. I highly doubt that my Senegalese friends would welcome the addition of whiskey to their national drink, but Évasions is true to its name: escapes. After two drinks, I was on the other side of the continent, frolicking in the Atlantic. Perhaps Stanley should have been less generous with the whiskey.

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