An Icy Drink Turns White Hot

After centuries of quenching, the Latin elixir called “horchata” colonizes cupcakes, cones and cocktails.

Like chambray shirts, boat shoes and white jeans, horchata is suddenly everywhere. The age-old, pearl-hued beverage—rice, roots or nuts soaked in water or milk, then pureed, sweetened, spiced and strained over ice—is now familiar in Latin communities and taco hot spots alike, not to mention in elaborate cocktails, de rigeur desserts and even Vampire Weekend songs (“Horchata” off their new album, Contra).

The creamy elixir can be as sweet as anything you’ll find in a baby bottle, and, indeed, early herders likely swilled a barley-based version back in the cradle of civilization, NYU food historian Gabriella Petrick explains, as a portable, protein-rich, prehistoric energy drink. Eventually, the Moorish invasion brought the almond/ barley beverage from Egypt and North Africa to Spain; legend holds that the name horchata was coined by the 13th-century Spanish King James I of Aragon, who, after first tasting the drink, is said to have exclaimed, “Això és or, xata!” or “That’s gold, darling!”

Conquistadors brought the culinary tradition to the New World, where, like its bearers, horchata begat countless regional descendants.  Mexican recipes primarily feature rice but may include almonds, cantaloupe seeds or coconut. Salvadoran horchata is made with the lentilshaped seeds of the morro vine, and sometimes cocoa or pumpkin seeds. Puerto Rican incarnations showcase sesame seeds.

And now Latino immigrants have brought the beloved beverage to New York, where its mainstream acceptance rivals that of other addictive Latin exports like tequila and Shakira.

Over the last century and into this one, a vibrant Hispanic population has come to call Nueva York home. Puerto Rican and Dominican populations remain New York’s largest Latin groups, but since the 1980s immigration from Central and South America has exploded. According to the 2007 census, more than one in four Manhattanites self-identify as Hispanic. Washington Heights, Manhattanville, Spanish Harlem and Hamilton Heights are home to thriving Latino populations; come summer, these neighborhoods are brimming with horchata.

And it seems the rest of Manhattan is following suit. On the Bowery, Brooklyn transplant Hecho en Dumbo serves the milky potion, as do Café El Portal in Nolita and Pinche Taquería in its Nolita and Noho locations. Posh Upper East Siders can purchase 16-ounce glasses of horchata for $3 from Paty’s Taco Truck at the northwest corner of 86th and Lexington, while, across the park, the Super Tacos truck on Amsterdam between 96th and 97th has been selling horchata to Upper West Siders in the know for over a decade.

Even visitors to SummerStage in Central Park can savor Soler Dominican’s authentic pupusas, carne asada and milky horchata.  Owner Rafael Soler hails from the Dominican Republic, but his wife, Reina, grew up in El Salvador, and they use the morro-seed horchata mix processed in her home country by Rio Grande, the largest seller of horchata mix to the East Coast. Before you order the powder in hopes of recreating his cups at home, be warned Soler adds a few secret ingredients to his recipe.

Horchata is nearly as ubiquitous as rice in Latin kitchens, but how to explain its sudden prevalence at eateries flying flavor flags of all stripes?

Lisa Fein, who recently posted an horchata recipe on her blog, Homesick Texan, considers the drink’s newfound popularity an extension of the New York taco truck scene, which has literally delivered the drink across neighborhood lines. “I always thought of horchata as only sold in the streets of Spanish Harlem and heavily Mexican areas. In the last few years it’s gone more mainstream.”

NYU’s Petrick also sees the drink as a crossover phenomenon.  She remembers horchata from when she lived in San Francisco a decade ago, and likens its rise to that of the fare it washes down.  “Chefs have been using street food (as inspiration) forever. It speaks back to how our culture is changing. American culture is becoming more Hispanic in subtle ways.”

“What is the point of living in a city like New York if you don’t take advantage of all the deliciousness from so many cultures?” asks Nueva York coauthor Carolina Gonzales, a self-professed horchata lover who was born in East Harlem and raised in the Dominican Republic. “That more upscale and mainstream places have started taking up Latin ingredients and flavor combinations was really just a matter of time.”

Striving to be culinary Giovanni da Verrazanos, chefs have staked their claims in horchata territory. Elfie Weiss of LA’s Hotcakes Bakes won the Food Network’s 2009 Cupcake Wars by transforming the drink into frosting atop a tres leches cupcake. In Brooklyn, Chrissy Barnes of Le Petit Cupcake makes a deconstructed horchata cupcake (almond and rice milk cake with cinnamon buttercream frosting).  And horchata-as-dessert takes the cake at the Midtown Latin-Indian fusion restaurant At Vermillion, where chef Maneet Chan plays with the recipe she learned from Mexican staff at her Chicago restaurant—soaking the cinnamon and basmati rice, then blending it, straining it and adding condensed milk and vanilla bean. She warns against soaking the rice too long, lest the starch result in a slimy texture.

But while horchata’s sweet poetry translates easily into the dessert course, it would seem the deep-freeze is the drink’s manifest destiny.

Take the horchata custard Shake Shack unveiled late last summer.  It was the brainchild of Shack manager Dan Tavan, who developed a sweet spot for the almond-cinnamon drink while growing up in San Jose, California. (Although USHG representatives also point out that the debut coincided with Hispanic Heritage month, Tavan admits he has never tasted a New York horchata.) Instead of grinding and soaking rice, the kitchen blended rice milk, almonds and cinnamon into their custard. While it isn’t currently on the menu, representatives said they would definitely consider it again.

It’s also at home on a stick. While standing in line for a horchata popsicle from Mexico City–native Fany Gerson’s New Yorkina stand in the Hester Street Fair, a woman from Valencia, where horchata is typically made from chufa nuts, was unfamiliar with the Mexican rice-based horchata; a few licks later, she was a satisfied convert. Gerson’s cookbook, My Sweet Mexico, will be published this fall and she’s looking to open a permanent shop in Manhattan later this year.

Even the celebrated soft-serve chefs at Momofuku Milk Bar have taken the drink as a silky, milky muse. While the team frequently makes rice-based horchata from the leftover rice at Ssäm, Momofuku Milk Bar’s pastry chef Christina Tosi—best known for her acclaimed crack pie—fell for chufa nut horchata when a friend brought back the sweet, nutty tuber nuggets from Spain, but in the end stuck with rice. To create the soft-serve, she experimented with toasting, steeping and then pureeing the staple starch to maintain chufa-like consistency and flavor. Horchata soft-serve perfection was finally found through steamed Nishiki rice, soaked overnight in milk and then seasoned with sugar, salt, citric acid, lemon juice and cinnamon. For a salty-sweet topping, Tosi tossed hand-crushed tortilla chips with cinnamon, salt, milk powder, melted butter and more sugar. Tosi was coy as to whether it will appear again at MMB (“Never say never!”), but fear not—the recipe will appear in the MMB cookbook due out in fall 2011.

Tosi isn’t the only chef with a hankering for horchata of the chufa nut persuasion. Originally from San Francisco, chef Jansen Chen at Oceana got to know horchata as a refreshing staple in Mexican taquerías, but on a recent trip to Valencia he loved the Spanish variety so much he drank horchata de chufa nearly every day—despite the itchy reaction it caused in the back of his throat. Chen brought the “earth almonds” back from Spain for his staff to try, but, like Tosi, eventually stuck with the Mexican formula of soaked and pureed rice, spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with vanilla syrup, for Oceana’s horchata sorbet—though he added sour cream and lime juice.

“The biggest question the servers had was, ‘What is horchata?’” Chen remembers. “Diners would say, ‘I thought horchata was made with almonds.’ ‘I thought horchata was made with this, made with that.’ I tried to emphasize that nearly all cultures have horchata. It’s just a starch-based drink and it’s very refreshing.” Chen took his global theory a step further and created a Japanese riff: horchata panna cotta, complete with sticky rice in the center.

Chefs and bakers are reinventing the sweet bebida, but mixologists beat them to the punch, so to speak. Perhaps they’re recalling the rice- and milk-based alcoholic drinks especially popular in the 18th century, but cocktail wunderkind Dave Wondrich sees hard horchata as less a part of the American bar tradition and more about bartender creativity. “The more hardcore the bar, you would add tequila, then brandy, then rum, and then finally vodka to the drink.”

Toward the least potent pole of the alcohol scale, start a night on the town with Bachata, a Bacardi, horchata and canela cocktail at the Lower East Side Latin hot spot Paladar. La Esquina’s chocolate flavored tequila-and-horchata cocktail is no longer on the menu, but you can still order its virgin version, agua de horchata, at the taquería. Soler Dominican’s horchata inspired Joaquin Simo, bartender at East Village cocktail den Death & Co, to create a smoked horchata cocktail. Simo chose two agave-based spirits—aged tequila’s mellow notes and mescal liqueur’s smoky richness add depth with vegetal notes. Cinnamon and tequila’s affinity inspired him to add cinnamon syrup, as well as a dash of bitters and coconut.

Moving up in both strength and geography, the frozen housemade, brandy-spiked chufa nut horchata slushy at Chelsea’s El Quinto Pino tastes like the love child of a Rum Punch Grasshopper and a Vanilla White Russian. Co-owner Alex Raij, who first tasted horchata as a backpacking 17 year old in Barcelona over 20 years ago, recalls, “I remember it having a big impact with its unexpected texture. What’s really impressive is its opaque viscosity. You expect the Spanish horchata to coat your tongue, but it’s served really, really cold so you don’t think of it as sweet.” For the cocktail, Raij uses a frozen chufanut concentrate from Spain and a sweet Spanish brandy.

Horchata is easy to make at home, but remember to mix up two batches and freeze one in ice cube trays to prevent water ice cubes from diluting the drink. If you insist on cheating, even Wal-Mart and CVS have begun carrying instant horchata powder. For the more discerning drinker, SoHo’s Spanish specialty store Despaña sells ready-to-pour horchata de chufa for $2 a cup or bottled by the liter. Chufa nuts and authentic original, organic or concentrated horchata de chufa are available from several Web sites, including the Spanish specialty store La Tienda (tienda.com). MexGrocer.com sells horchata powder and concentrate as well as organic rice-based mix from Juanita’s, Klass, Fiesta and Maria Elena’s. For Salvadoran horchata mix made with morro seeds, you can order Rio Grande mix from their Web site or Racor’s from MexicanImportedFoods.com.

While today’s upscale versions of horchata are often as delicious as they are innovative, a cup of simple, traditional horchata is worth a ride on the 1 train to the 191st Street stop in Washington Heights for arguably the best horchata in Manhattan. Juana Lagauo, owner of La Cabana Salvadorena, imports 50-pound bags of expensive morro seeds from El Salvador, then adds sesame seeds, rice, milk, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. Take a seat, watch a fútbol match on the television and enjoy a $2 glass of the not-too-sweet horchata—the perfect accompaniment to pupusas—the spicy, stuffed tortillalike national specialty of El Salvador. Or wander the sidewalks where cups are for sale all summer. As a general rule, the closer you feel to Mexico City or San Salvador, the better. Avoid circulating machines. Look for pitchers or the traditional beehive-shaped vitroleros filled with aguas frescas. Order one in a Styrofoam cup for a couple bucks from someone who grew up making horchata in the mountains, and taste one of the most refreshing beverages on earth—before it becomes a Chipotle staple.

Photo credit: Michael Gross

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When freelance food writer and Huffington Post contributor Louise McCready is not out tasting article topics, she can be found scouring local markets, testing new recipes and dreaming of her future goat farm.