Horchata

Alejandro Gonz‡lez, right, owner of Mexican restaurants in Huntington, NY

Alejandro Gonz‡lez, right, owner of Mexican restaurants in Huntington, NY

The Spanish say they invented it in Valencia—and indeed the modern name, “horchata,” is derived from the Catalán word orxata—although the Arabs, who ruled Spain for 800 years, also lay claim to its origins. They may both be trumped by those eternal ancient Egyptians who interred the nuts with their exalted dead, presumably to whip up a refreshing batch after the exhausting journey to the afterlife. The French, never to be outdone, have a version made with barley and called by the suspiciously similar name orgeat. Even the celebrated indie band Vampire Weekend has dipped their collective straws into the drink, with “Horchata,” a cut from their album Contra.

Who knew that horchata, a cooling milk made of tiger nuts or rice or sesame seeds or barley, was the source of such international furore?

The drink comes in many versions the world over, and its origins are hotly debated by food historians, nationalists and forensic anthropologists. While they are battling it out, we have our own pretenders to the throne of horchata history here on Long Island, with immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean making their own versions with jícaro, sesame or morro seeds. But for the non-Latino, it is most readily available made with rice at Mexican restaurants. And if you go to Oaxaca on New York Avenue in Huntington, where it is one of the most popular beverages on the menu, and talk to owner Alejandro González, you will also get an earful on the history of horchata and why he believes it originated in Mexico.

This drink is the forerunner of the aguas frescas or fresh waters—made with tamarind or hibiscus—that Mexicans continue to drink today. But the original’s consumption in Mexico was halted by history.

“In pre-Hispanic Mexico, cacao [chocolate] was a luxury item for the rich,” says González, also the owner of Quetzalcoatl in Huntington and Chichimecas in Farmingdale, as he stirs an infusion of sugar, cinnamon sticks and water, the base for Oaxaca’s horchata. “It doesn’t grow in Mexico; it had to be imported from tropical zones. They made a drink of cornmeal and cacao sweetened with the juice of the corn stalk. It gave a lot of energy. They stored it in clay pots in the shade, which made it nice and cool and refreshing.”

This drink is the forerunner of the aguas frescas or fresh waters—made with tamarind or hibiscus—that Mexicans continue to drink today. But the original’s consumption in Mexico was halted by history.

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“When the Spanish arrived, the systems were broken and Mexicans didn’t get cacao anymore,” González says. “They began to substitute the local corn with the rice that the Spanish brought. It was easier.”

In this way, says González, modern-day Mexican horchata developed. As he cools the cinnamon infusion, he also puts evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk into a large container. Uncooked long-grain rice goes into a blender until it becomes powder and gets added to the container. Once he has strained the infusion, he adds that as well. Finally, he adds vanilla, which he points out is another product of the Americas. “If we were in Mexico, we would use the actual pods,” he says ruefully. Then he stirs and tastes, adds a bit more sugar, and it is ready. We ladle some over ice and sit in the dining area of Oaxaca. The horchata is milky and refreshingly sweet, but not overly so. The cinnamon gives it a festive note. Horchata is indeed agua fresca; I feel energized for our conversation and to get on with the rest of the day and think about exploring some of the other versions of this new-for-me beverage that has so many variations around the world. Perhaps we’ll start making it with local hops?

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