Hibiscus sabdariffa, or ‘wonjo’, grows as a tropical dark red and green shrub that produces numerous attractive, light pink or white hibiscus-like flowers. It is, however, the fleshy deep red calyces (outer protective cover of a flower bud) that are used to make the popular Gambian drink with a taste resembling cranberry juice. The calyces are used either fresh or dried; they are boiled in water, and the infusion is sweetened to taste before chilling and enjoying it as a refreshing beverage. In The Gambia, wonjo is locally grown without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers, making it a perfect choice of an organic and natural ‘superfood’.
Wonjo is commonly served as a cold beverage, either on its own or layered with thick, tangy baobab juice. A special twist can be created by adding fresh mint leaves or ginger when boiling it. You'll also find wonjo being sold in the form of local popsicles frozen in small plastic bags. As a more suitable variant for the European winter weather, you may choose to make ‘mulled wonjo’, served hot and flavoured with Christmas spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, a few orange slices and – if preferred – a liquor of choice. Wonjo jam is another popular product made from this versatile natural gem that incidentally makes a great gift to bring home for family and friends. A different approach to using wonjo is by pounding the dried calyces into wonjo powder, which can then be added to cakes, ice creams, jams and other desserts. But the flowers are not the only part of the hibiscus plant that can be used: the fresh greens are locally used as a leafy vegetable that adds a slightly sour taste and a whole array of vitamins to a hearty family meal.
Wonjo is rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants like vitamin C, contains minerals such as flavonoids and has laxative properties. The freshly brewed infusion has been known to prevent hypertension, lower blood pressure, improve liver health, help with menstrual cramps, help with depression, aid digestion and help with weight management. Through its ability to reduce blood sugar levels, wonjo tea may also help people with type 2 diabetes better control their blood glucose.
The dried, dark red wonjo calyces are a noticeable good sold out of large repurposed rice bags on most local markets, but you will also find them readily packed in certain supermarkets. A wide range of wonjo products, such as locally made wonjo-baobab-jam, ready-to-use wonjo powder, as well as wonjo teas packed in cute African wax print bags as a gift idea, can be found at Top-Shop at Senegambia Beach Hotel. You can also visit Serekunda Market and buy some cups of wonjo there or check for it in Farm Fresh, Taste Of Nature, Yusupha’s Natural Products, MyFarm, Feed Your Soul and many more.
Interested in how to make wonjo juice yourself? Read more here.