photo:  food rhythms

Among widely-loved beverages, horchata ranks highly. Even for those not well-versed in food, the sweet, light crème-colored drink is recognizable as an option in many Latin-restaurants and ice cream shops. It’s everywhere and it’s delicious. Even those of us who count ourselves as enthusiasts may not be aware that the category of drink referred to as horchata has a history going back thousands of years.

The type of horchata that dates back to antiquity is a drink more specifically called “horchata de chufa,” made from ground and sweetened tiger nuts. Horchata de chufa originated in North Africa around 2400 B.C, and with the Roman conquest of Egypt, the drink was dubbed “hordeata.” The drink was heralded for its “cooling quality” and it was recommended that people drink the barley water drink on hot days, to lower fevers, and to feed it to babies when they fussed.

The Moors then brought horchata to West Africa and Spain in the 8th century. As it spread through Spain, France, and England, the drink continued to be enjoyed both for its refreshing quality and for its perceived health benefits. The concept of horchata then spread from Spain to Mexico in the course of colonization. Because Spanish conquistadors didn’t bring tiger nuts with them to “the New World,” this variety of horchata was rice-based, and called horchata de arroz or agua de horchata, flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and in some regions, marigolds. The drink took hold in Mexico and spread throughout North and South America. Variations on this drink are what most Americans would name and recognize as “horchata.”

While the drink also survived and developed into the modern day in West Africa (it’s known as kuunu aya in Hausa, a Nigerian language) and in England (it’s the ancestor of Robinson’s Lemon Barley Water, Wimbledon’s official drink), horchata’s most widespread association is with cultures touched by Spanish colonization. There are multitudes of Latin variations of horchata, including horchata de mélon, made from ground melon seeds and horchata de ajonjolí which is popular in Puerto Rico and made from ground sesame seeds and possibly rice, along with almonds, evaporated milk, coconut milk, allspice, and rum, or maybe barley and lime zest. In Central America, horchata might refer to a drink also called semilla de jicaro, which involves a similar assortment of ingredients along with cocoa and possibly nutmeg, sometimes even ground peanuts, almonds, and cashews. Ecuadorian horchata, or horchata Lojana (after the Southern Ecuadorian province Loja), refers to a drink that’s more of a clear red tea, but is also made from a similar mix of the herbs and spices that are added to the other types. Ecuadorians recognize horchata Lojana for its health benefits, and it’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, to promote digestion, and to improve memory.

While Horchata has been enjoyed by many people in many ways over the course of time. Hopefully knowing more about the history and varieties available to try adds to the appreciation the next time you get a cup at your local taquería, or even decide to make a batch yourself.