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Make a Splash with Rooibos Tea

South Africa's wonder tea has no caffeine, tastes great, and offers unbeatable health benefits

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Mastering the Art of Rooibos

Rooibos is like a canvas: spice it up or substitute it for water in almost any recipe. Create your own masterpieces-or try these:

  1. To make a soup base, use rooibos straight or dissolve bouillon cubes in hot rooibos, 1 cube to 1 cup.
  2. For a dessert that will leave you wanting seconds, pour rooibos
    over ice cream.
  3. Add an ounce of rooibos to a glass of vodka and cranberry juice for a refreshing cocktail.
  4. Try equal parts lemonade and rooibos for a summer cooler.
  5. Mix a rooibos dessert tea blend using carrot cake ingredients, including honeybush, cinnamon, carrots, walnuts, and coconut (or order one online). Add a splash of milk and a drop of honey to the heated beverage for a taste
    of heaven.

You’ve been to the local coffeehouse and tried the new vanilla red tea latté, only to discover that the light, delicious brew isn’t what you expected. Not actually a tea, and not a coffee, what is this new sensation out of Africa? Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), or “red bush” in Afrikaans, has been grown in the rugged Cederberg Mountains near Cape Town, South Africa, for more than 1,000 years, but only recently have its astounding health benefits been recognized globally.

Indigenous to South Africa alone, rooibos is a tisane; that is, it grows like Camellia sinensis, the bush from which tea is processed, and is drunk as if it were a tea. But rooibos is a member of the legume family-its cousins are beans and peas. The region’s sandy mountain soil contains almost no nitrogen, and the dry climate produces little rain, yet as a legume, rooibos has amazing adaptive qualities. It sends a taproot far into the earth for water and traps nitrogen from the atmosphere via an internal “lab,” using bacteria on its roots. The bush is harvested with a sickle, like hay, while it’s still green and taken to plantations, where it lays in the hot African sun until it turns a luscious, ruby red color.

From the earliest days, rooibos was known for a variety of medicinal properties: its ability to soothe stomach cramps (including infant colic), relieve headaches and nervous tension, and alleviate allergies. Today, we’ve learned that it’s packed with antioxidants, including flavonoids and phenolic acids-two powerful agents against free radicals. Quercetin and luteolin, two rooibos flavonoids, have been known to initiate the spontaneous death of cancer cells (apoptosis). What’s more, rooibos is among only a handful of plants in the world containing epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a potent antioxidant whose myriad benefits include decreasing the risk of atherosclerosis. Rooibos has also been shown to be effective against a range of dermatological conditions, leading to its value as an ingredient in skin care products. Because rooibos is not a tea, it has no caffeine and contains an exceptionally low level of tannins, but it does have plenty of minerals and trace elements, including potassium, calcium, and zinc.

How does it taste? Exquisite. Rooibos has a mildly sweet, fruity character with overtones of vanilla, caramel, and mango. Drink it straight, with a twist of lemon, and milk and honey, or add it to virtually any drink. Unlike tea, rooibos continues to improve in flavor as it steeps, and it refrigerates and reheats well.

With so many health benefits and such a pleasing taste, it’s no wonder rooibos is taking the world by storm. But according to Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a Massachusetts company that distributes fairly traded organic products, the popularity of rooibos may well push South Africa’s small-scale, indigenous farmers out of the market. About 98 percent of the area’s rooibos is cultivated by large, white-owned plantations that moved in when local Khoisan farmers were displaced during apartheid. Today, only two small indigenous co-ops exist. Equal Exchange and Alter Eco, a French company, partner with the co-ops to promote sustainable farming, bring the highest quality rooibos to the market, and help indigenous farmers toward a brighter future. The message? Know who is at the other end of your cup of tea.

Product Examples

In India, chai spices were once given to the royal family as a digestive aid.Flora Health Bija Rooibos Chai mixes organic rooibos and a rich array of spices to impart the same antioxidant powers and healing properties of traditional Indian chai.

African Red Tea Rooibos Red Tea is naturally caffeine-free, and it’s untreated so that all of the healthful polyphenols are preserved.

Rishi Tea Organic Blueberry Rooibos combines antioxidant-rich African rooibos and real, wild blueberries in perfect balance for a tart, juicy, and naturally sweet flavor that tastes great hot or iced.

The Republic of Tea Double Red Rooibos Tea combines finely ground rooibos with the leaves for a rich, red brew with full-bodied flavor and a double punch of antioxidants.

Equal Exchange Organic Rooibos Tea. Cultivated by small farmers in South Africa, this tea has a fruity character with honey-vanilla overtones.

Chocolate Roses Rooibos
Original recipe by Mark “Dr. Tea” Ukra, author of The Ultimate Tea Diet

Serves 2

2 cups Loose leaf rooibos

1 cup Your favorite nondairy (or dairy) milk, such as almond or soy

1 tbs. agave or stevia

1 Tbs. Dried red rose petals

1 Tbs. Chocolate chips

Nondairy (or dairy) topping, such as Cool Whip

  1. Coat teapot with a thin layer (about 1/16″) of rooibos.
  2. Add hot water and brew about 3 minutes.
  3. Pour strained tea into blender. Add rose petals, chocolate chips, milk, and agave and blend until frothy. (For a cold drink, first fill blender with ice.)
  4. Pour into individual cups; add scoop of topping, and serve.