Rooibos didn’t mean much to me the first time I was offered a cup of it. A college friend had just come back from South Africa and brought a box of it back. She deemed it delicious. I, on the other hand, wasn’t an early convert but I have grown to love this caffeine free tea so intimately linked with South Africa.
The rooibos bush (Afrikaans for red bush) grows nearly exclusively in the Western Cape and its leaves have been used to make tea by the indigenous population for centuries. In the late 1700s, the Dutch colonialists observed the locals climbing up the mountain slopes to cut the rooibos’ leaves which they would bundle and bring back in big sacks. The leaves were left to dry in the sun and subsequently used for brewing tea. The Dutch quickly started to drink it as a substitution for black tea which was expensive to import and hard to come by. More importantly they encouraged the cultivation.
The leaves become reddish-brown once they are oxidized and they are known to contain a large amount of anti-oxidants, similar to green tea. In traditional bush medicine, rooibos is said to help baby colic, allergy, asthma and, applied to the skin, to clear up acne.
Rooibos’ taste can be a slightly acquired one – earthy with a hint of sweetness. In South Africa it is as easy to find as PG Tips in England and it’s drunk straight or slightly sweetened. Or a lot sweetened – I looked in disbelief when I offered a cup of it to my friend Sue’s house maid and she dropped 5 spoonfuls of sugar in it!
In the US it has been growing in popularity but tea blenders somehow must think consumers might have a problem with the original flavor and they tend to mix it with vanilla, spices or ginger so that finding straightforward rooibos has become a treasure hunt in health stores. It’s a shame because like macha once you get past the unfamiliar earthy flavour, the nuances of the plant come through, making for a perfect hot drink.