Diving into horchata’s history.
While ordering your customary carnitas tacos at your favorite Mexican joint, you’ve likely seen a large dispenser full of a milky beverage flecked with cinnamon — horchata. Like most culinary creations, the white rice-based drink, a staple in Mexican cuisine, has an origin story with a unique — and at times, unclear — geographical journey.
Horchata de chufa, made from soaked, ground, and sweetened tiger nuts, was popularized in Spain, but it is thought to go back to 2400 B.C. in North Africa. The refreshing plant-milk beverage spread across Europe to Latin America, and new regional versions with different soaked seeds and grains emerged. In Puerto Rico, horchata de ajonjolí is made from toasted, soaked, and ground sesame seeds. In Central America, you’ll find semilla de jicaro, a form of the plant-based milk made from the seeds of the jicaro fruit and rice. Horchata de melón comes from soaked and ground melon seeds.
In Mexico, there’s horchata de arroz (rice) — the type of horchata you’re most likely to encounter in the United States. In its most basic form, white rice is soaked with cinnamon sticks in water for several hours, then ground and sweetened with sugar. However, some versions may include additional spice from vanilla, cloves, star anise, nutmeg, or almonds and creaminess from different types of milk. Blended fruit such as strawberries also can be added to the mix.
“In Mexican culture, we’re very big on making aguas frescas,” says Diego Hernandez of Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in South Lake Tahoe, referring to “fresh water” drinks made from fruits, flowers, grains, and seeds. “There’s agua de Jamaica, which is a hibiscus tea water, and during the summer months, [fans of aguas frescas] begin to use more citrus fruits such as freshly squeezed orange juice. Every day there is some sort of ‘water’ that most Mexican people will have during dinner and lunch. Horchata is definitely one of the top two that they have on a regular basis.”
At Maria’s — run by the namesake matriarch; her son, Diego; and daughter, Andrea — a traditional horchata is made fresh daily using white rice, water, cinnamon, vanilla, and a three-milk base of whole, condensed, and evaporated. Originating in their home city of Guadalajara in Jalisco, Mexico, the family recipe has been passed down from generation to generation, and the techniques used in the process are hush-hush.
“We sell out every day,” Hernandez says. “But actually, our most popular horchata is our special dairy-free version.”
Maria’s offers traditional meat-heavy Mexican dishes but also has a large selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes with plant-based cheese and meat alternatives. The dairy-free horchata is made with rice, oatmeal, organic almond milk, cinnamon, cane sugar, and water.
“It’s a modern way to look at horchata, but it still keeps its traditional roots,” Hernandez explains. “A lot of people today are lactose intolerant, don’t do dairy, or just don’t do any animal products, so this serves everybody.”
As for what pairs best with horchata?
“Tacos. Tacos go with everything,” Diego says with a laugh. “But we do have a red-sauce-based enchilada stuffed with tofu and vegetables and topped with vegan cheese that would go very well with it.”
Claire McArthur agrees that an ice-cold glass of horchata is exactly what you should order to wash down those carne asada tacos. (She also is a big proponent of adding a splash of rum if you get yours to take home.)
(courtesy of Rene Preciado, chef/owner, Mexcal in Reno. Makes 2 to 3 gallons)
2 cups rice
4 sticks cinnamon
2 cups unsalted peanuts
2 cans evaporated milk
Sugar, to taste
2 to 3 gallons water, to taste
Soak rice and cinnamon sticks for 4 hours. Roast peanuts and let cool. Blend peanuts with rice and cinnamon sticks. Pour into container. Add 2 to 3 gallons water, to taste. Pour individual serving into tall glass with ice.
(revised by Jaci Goodman, co-publisher of edible Reno-Tahoe. Makes about 7 cups)
1 cup rice
2 sticks cinnamon
1 cup unsalted peanuts
1 can evaporated milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 6 cups water, to taste
Soak rice and cinnamon sticks for 4 hours. Roast peanuts and let cool. Blend peanuts with rice and cinnamon sticks. Pour into container. Add about 6 cups water, to taste. Pour individual serving into tall glass with ice.