There's no doubt that America loves Mexican cuisine: approximately one out of every 10 restaurants in the U.S. sells Mexican food, making it the most popular style of international cuisine in the entire nation. The staples are easily identifiable: corn, beans, rice, and colorful veggies adorn most Mexican dishes. Despite its popularity, however, few people know of its history. Though many authentic Mexican dishes harken back to ancient Mayan cuisine, horchata -- that sweet and iconic beverage -- has an altogether different past. Let's take a look at the history of horchata.
A Basic Definition
Despite its milk-like appearance, horchata is produced from nuts, most notably dried and sweetened tiger nuts. Its name comes from the Latin 'Hordeata,' which in turn comes from 'Hordeum,' a term related to a Mediterranean tradition of grain-based beverages -- that's right, horchata is a plant-milk beverage. The most well-known version of this delicious drink got famous in Valencia, where it was officially known as horchata de chufa.
However, as more and more cultures came to embrace the beverage, they began formulating their own recipes: horchata de arroz is most popular in Mexico and Guatemala; horchata de ajonjolí which utilizes sesame seeds is favored in Puerto Rico; semilla de jicaro uses jicaro seeds and is consumed in Central American nations.
Though mainly associated with Hispanic and Latinx cultures, the famous drink actually began in Africa. Kunnu aya spread to Iberia (now Spain) with the Muslim conquest, way back in 1000CE.
From Valencia, kunnu aya transformed into horchata de chufu and made its way over to the New World. There, drinks called agua de horchata and the much simpler horchata came to be associated with white rice and cinnamon or Canella rather than tiger nuts. Occasionally, vanilla or fruit would be added as extra ingredients. This is what the modern world knows and understands horchata to be.
The history of horchata highlights how food can integrate and become a vital part of a culture's identity. Whether you like Americanized Mexican food (like Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex), or prefer truly authentic Mexican cuisine, odds are you'll be able to enjoy your dinner with a delicious glass of horchata.