Until recently, if you said “horchata” I would have responded with “Mexico!” Now, I am not so sure, having sampled the horchata of Spain, which country’s name I’d blurt out. While there are some similarites, sweet frothy drink, the differences are readily apparent. Besides, these two countries do not have the monopoly on this drink, as several other nations claim tasty versions all their own.
The Spanish One
The horchata name comes from Valencian Catalan orxata, which itself probably came from ordiata, made from ordi (barley) (Latin: hordeata). The French and English orgeat, the Italian orzata, and the Surinamese Dutch orgeade are all similarly derived, though the beverages themselves have diverged, and are generally no longer made from barley.
In Spain, the drink is referred to as orxata de xufa (horchata de chufa), with chufa being another name for tigernuts. Water, sugar, a touch of lemon, and possibly cinnamon complete the tasty and refreshing drink. This drink is usually served one of two ways: fresh as seen in the picture at the top of the post, or granizado, mixed with ice so that it has a frozen shake like consistency. Given that we had the good fortune to visit when the Siberian winds whipped across the country (I am not making this up, that is what I was told) and it was the coldest winter in 40 years, I did not dare try the second version, but I can imagine that on a hot day it would come close to the perfect thirst quencher.
A Bit of History
Valencia Spain is known as the home of horchata for the country and the use of tiger nuts is thanks to the Muslim presence in Valencia from the 8th to 13th century. The first use of tigernuts as a beverage is thought to date back to ancient Egyptian times, and evidence show that tigernuts were even included in the funeral trappings of some pharaohs.
According to legend, a young villager from the fertile area of Valencia known as L’Horta offered King Jaume I a sweet, white drink. The King who found it much to his liking asked; “Qué es això?” (What is this?), and the girl replied “Es llet de xufa” (It is tigernut milk). The King responded, “Això no es llet, això és OR, XATA” (This is not milk, this is gold (OR), pretty girl (XATA).
Chufa or Tiger Nuts
This critical ingredient for Spanish horchata has found fertile ground near Valencia. It is a tuber, similar to a peanut, and so the key ingredient is found under ground. It was first cultivated on the banks of the Nile along the border between Sudan and Egypt, and in Mesopotamia. It was used as a medicine by the ancient Persian and Arabs. It was only when the Arab traders brought the tigernuts to Spain in the 7th century, specifically Valencia that it was used in what we know today as horchata.
In the Spanish Style
In Valencia we saw several places that focus on this tasty drink called Horchaterias. Like tea or coffee houses they focused their energies on one drink – but not to the exclusion of all other.
Making a gross generality, I observed that the Spanish do not like to just drink a beverage when something tasty can be dipped into said liquid as is the case with chocolate and churros. With horchata its fartons or to be honest, just about any puff pastry confection seemed suitable. Fartons are long skinny, sweet bread rolls often with a light glaze.
Latin America’s Delicious Spins
While in some countries the drink is usually “milky”, perhaps because some recipes call for milk, but many do not. Other typical ingredients include sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Though horchata was once typically homemade, it is now available pre-made in grocery stores, although purists do not consider these versions the real deal.
Mexico: Perhaps no other country has this drink more strongly associated with it than Mexico. A google search on horchata brings the Mexican version to the fore. Coupled with tamarindo and jamaica, horchata (with rice) is part of the trifecta of the three typical drinks (aqua frescas) found in Mexican taquerias and restaurants. The horchata in the US mainly resembles this version.
El Salvador: The horchata primarily made from morro seeds, not rice. Other common ingredients include cocoa, cinnamon, sesame seeds, nutmeg, tigernuts and vanilla. Still other nuts might be added include peanuts, almonds and cashews.
Both Nicaragua and Honduras have horchata known as semilla de jicaro, made from the jicaro seeds ground with rice and spices. The drink is made with cold milk and sugar.
Puerto Rico: Expect the horchata to contain sesame seeds ground with rice, vanilla and cinnamon and either evaporated milk, milk or water. If you want to get creative, some recipes call for coconut milk, allspice and rum.
In Venezuela, horchata is generally called chicha, and the alcoholic variant is called chicha andina.
Ecuador, perhaps seeking to be unique has a horchata that is a clear, red infusion of 18 herbs.
If you like Mexican style horchata, you will really enjoy the Spanish version and appreciate the differences. To me, many horchatas are too sweet, perhaps to counter the searing heat of the food it accompanies, but with the Spanish versions I sampled the flavor of the tiger nuts came through and I liked the slight grittiness that the drink had. Enjoy it for yourself.