Going Nuts for Horchata

That's Nuts

A weekly dose of nutty history, pop culture, and recipes from Lee Zalben, aka The Peanut Butter Guy.

"In December drinking horchata, I'd look psychotic in a balaclava." —Vampire Weekend."


[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Vampire Weekend is one of my favorite bands, partly because they have a song called Horchata. You got to give them props for stringing together a rhyme like horchata and balaclava (and later in the song, they also rhyme it with Aranciata, one of my favorite Italian beverages).

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But seriously, no exploration of all things nutty would be complete without some time spent on horchata, a creamy almond-based drink with some interesting origins. The soothing, sweet beverage that's "milky" yet dairy-free is a perfect foil to any chili pepper laden dish. It falls under the category of beverages known as aguas frescas (Spanish for "fresh waters"), or cooling beverages that complement Mexican cuisine.

The drink owes its creamy consistency to the combination of almonds, rice, and barley (and sometimes even sesame or melon seeds) that make up the recipe. Horchata is prepared by blanching and soaking almonds, pulverizing rice and barley, combining all of the ingredients in a blender and straining the mixture with cheesecloth.

Horchata is a beverage with a long, cross-continental history. The drink's earliest origins are often debated. The first nut used as a base for horchata seems to be the chufa nut, or tiger nut. Some say horchata can be traced back to ancient Egypt where chufa nuts were often included in burial chambers; others maintain that the beverage is Arabic in origin, and spread to Spain through Arab influence. Today, horchata is particularly popular in Latin America, Spain, and parts of the United States.

Different variations exist from region to region; some typical additions to the basic recipe include cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. Sometimes morro seeds are swapped for rice, rum can be added for an "adult" version of the beverage, and milk is sometimes added to make the consistency even creamier. There are even a number of bottled varieties available, like Rosa's Premium Horchata.

Are you nuts for horchata? How did you first come to try it? Have you ever made it from scratch?