Like skinny jeans and TOMS shoes, horchata is hot. The ageold pearl-hued beverage-rice, roots or nuts soaked in water or milk, then sweetened, spiced and strained over ice-has made the leap from Latin communities and taco hotspots into elaborate cocktails, hipster espressos, 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, ancient herders likely swilled a barleybased version back in the cradle of civilization-NYU food historian Gabriella Petrick explains it was 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. Puerto Rican horchata showcases sesame seeds. Salvadoran incarnations are made with the lentil-shaped seeds of the morro vine, and sometimes cocoa or pumpkin seeds. Mexican recipes feature rice; variations include almonds, cantaloupe seeds or coconut.
And now Latino immigrants have brought the beloved beverage to Brooklyn’s shores, where its mainstream acceptance rivals that of Latin America’s other deliciously addictive exports tequila and Shakira.
Throughout the 20th century, a vibrant and growing Hispanic population came to call Nueva York home. Puerto Rican and Dominican populations remain New York’s two largest Latin groups, but since the 1980s immigration from Central and South America has exploded. According to the 2000 census, nearly a fifth of Brooklynites self-identify as Hispanic and speak Spanish at home. Williamsburg, Bushwick, Sunset Park, Cypress Hills and City Line contain Brooklyn’s greatest concentrations of Hispanics-and, not surprisingly, these neighborhoods are brimming with horchata.
Mexican horchata, aka “rice Kool-Aid,” vastly outnumbers other varieties here in New York and across the country-but this might change as New York’s Salvadoran population swells. Today, New York’s Mexican population outnumbers Salvadorans by less than two to one. Arguably the best horchata in Brooklyn is found at the Salvadoran restaurant Bahia in Williamsburg. For the past 10 years, brothers and co-owners Felix and Luis A. Palomo have made bimonthly trips to their hometown of Jiquilisco, El Salvador, to bring back pounds of horchata powder, which includes morro, sesame and pumpkin seeds, cashews, peanuts, cocoa, rice, cinnamon sticks, vanilla and a little sugar-all ground by their mother’s loving hands. Back in Brooklyn, the brothers mix the homemade horchata powder with water, forswearing milk. Luis considers the drink the perfect accompaniment to pupusas, the spicy, stuffed tortilla-like national specialty of El Salvador.
Visitors to the Brooklyn Flea or Red Hook Ball Fields line up for vendor Soler Dominican’s Salvadoran pupusas, Dominican carne asada and thirst-quenching horchata. Though co-owner Rafael Soler hails from the Dominican Republic, his partner and wife, Reina, is from El Salvador, and the stand features Salvadoran morro seed horchata mix processed in that country by a company called Rio Grande, the largest purveyor of horchata mix to the East Coast. (Before you order Rio Grande mix to recreate Soler’s horchata at home, be warned that he adds cocoa and a few secret ingredients.)
Horchata is understandably as ubiquitous as rice in Latin kitchens, but how to explain its appearance at the likes of Pies ‘n’ Thighs, which included the drink on their menu when they reopened this spring?
Lisa Fain, who recently posted a horchata recipe on her blog, Homesick Texan, attributes the drink’s newfound popularity to 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.”
Always scouting for new tastebud territory, chefs have reinvented horchata. In L.A., Elfie Weiss’s Hotcakes Bakes bakery won the Food Network’s 2009 Cupcake Wars by transforming the drink into whipped cream frosting atop a tres leches cupcake. Last fall in Manhattan, tastemakers Shake Shack and Momofuku Milk Bar both channeled the drink for frozen desserts and served horchata custard and soft-serve ice cream respectively. Horchata and other agua fresca-flavored popsicles made by My Sweet Mexico cookbook author Fany Gerson are now drawing devotees at Manhattan’s Hester Street Fair and Brooklyn’s Choice Market.
But chefs weren’t the first to reinvent horchata. Mixologists have been busy incorporating its milky versatility into cocktails, drawing upon a long tradition of warm and cold rice- and-milk-based drinks especially popular in the 19th century. Across the East River, cocktail den Death & Co. serves a smoked horchata cocktail, and El Quinto Pino offers a horchata-brandy slushy. But Brooklyn bartenders beat them to the (spiked) punch.
As early as 2006, the Fort Greene location of Bonita (whose owners Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow of Diner and Marlow & Sons have since reinvented the restaurant as Roman’s) sold an immensely popular horchata cocktail, sort of a summer take on holiday eggnog. Firth recalls, “People loved it. I’d never heard of it before, but the first time they made it, I said, ‘Holy shit, this is like a meal.'”
Fortunately a group of Bonita alumni, including the chefs and managers, moved mere blocks from Bonita’s shuttered Williamsburg location to open Cariño Restaurant and Cantina in April. Cariño’s horchata cocktail, made with tequila and Kahlúa, differs slightly from the Bonita original. Cariño also serves a daily rotation of aguas frescas, including horchata, and horchata-and agua fresca-flavored paletas, or frozen ice pops. “Horchata is one of my favorite drinks,” says Cariño co-owner Yesenia Santibanez. “It was for babies originally and moved to the more sophisticated realm of the bar. It’s delicious and nutritious.”
Williamsburg Mexican destination Taco Chulo has featured a rice-and-almond-based horchata cocktail for years, made first with rum and Kahlúa and now with canela-infused vodka and Patrón café tequila liqueur. And demand for the White Russian-inspired vodka version-begging to be called a White Gringo-is way up. When asked if this surge in interest might be due to Vampire Weekend’s latest album, owner Greta Dana laughed, “Well, we are in Williamsburg.”
Sans alcohol, horchata is Taco Chulo’s most requested nonalcoholic beverage, outselling all other aguas frescas. Chrissy Barnes, part-time Taco Chulo manager and full-time cupcake baker, makes a deconstructed horchata cupcake (almond and rice milk cake with cinnamon buttercream frosting) for staff birthdays and catered events. You can find her Le Petit Cupcake stand on Sundays outside of Brooklyn Artists & Fleas in Williamsburg, but get there early as they tend to sell out.
Over in Brooklyn Heights, Taylor Mork, co-owner of the recently opened Crop to Cup coffeeshop co-op, substitutes horchata for milk in his iced espresso horchata. After tinkering with an Aztec recipe handed down from his friend’s Mexican grandmother, Mork settled on equal parts raw (for thickness and body) and cooked (for smooth, cinnamony sweetness) organic long-grain rice. After adding vanilla, sugar and cinnamon, he lets the mixture sit overnight, then purees it in a blender. To serve, Mork pours a triple espresso shot of his Juju East African and South African bean blend over ice and ladles horchata on top.
Horchata is easy to make, but afficionados mix up two batches and freeze one in ice cube trays, lest water ice cubes dilute the drink. If you insist on cheating, MexGrocer.com sells powder and concentrate as well as organic rice-based mix from Juanita’s, Klass, Fiesta and Maria Elena’s. Both chufa nuts and authentic original, organic or concentrated horchata de chufa are available online from several Web sites, including the Spanish specialty store La Tienda (tienda.com). For Salvadoran horchata mix made with morro seeds, you can order Rio Grande mix from their Web site or Racor’s from ImportedMexicanFoods.com.
While post-makeover upscale versions of horchata are both delicious and innovative, the simple, traditional horchata is worth a ride on the R train to Sunset Park. Stepping out of the 45th Street Subway stop is like traveling to Latin America, no passport required, and horchata is only one of the many aguas frescas sold at the summer sidewalk stands lining Fifth Avenue. 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 of Mexico, and taste one of the most refreshing beverages on earth-before it becomes a Chipotle staple.
4 c. white rice (preferably jasmine)
½ c. raw almonds
2 cinnamon sticks
8 c. water
sugar to taste
Combine all ingredients but sugar and soak at least four hours. Blend in batches in a blender, then pass through a sieve. Add sugar to taste. Chill.
Cariño Restaurant and Cantina’s “Beso” horchata cocktail
Shake well and pour into a chilled martini glass or a rocks glass with ice.
Taylor Mork’s iced espresso horchata
Grind 1 cup of the uncooked rice until superfine; set aside. Cook 1 cup of rice, adding 1 tsp of cinnamon halfway through. Combine together cooked and uncooked rice in a large bowl. Add water, vanilla extract, sugar and remaining cinnamon. Stir mixture and let sit several hours or overnight.
Blend mixture in batches. Let blended mixture sit, pour top layer out gently until you reach the grainy mixture that has settled. Blend the grainy portion again and let sit for several minutes. Pour out the top layer (about 90%) into the main batch and discard the grainy bits. Keeps four days in the refrigerator and yields 10 to 12 cups.
Mix horchata well (be sure to avoid the grainy layer at the bottom). Prepare a triple ristretto shot of espresso. Fill the cup with ice. Pour the espresso shot over ice. Ladle horchata over the iced espresso until the glass is full. Enjoy!
Places to try horchata in Brooklyn:
Bahia: Salvadoran, Williamsburg
690 Grand St., near Manhattan
Monday to Thursday 11:30am to 10pm; Friday 11:30am to 11pm; Saturday 9am to 11pm; Sunday 9am to 10pm
Soler Dominican: Dominican/Salvadoran, Ft. Greene, Red Hook, Central Park
Brooklyn Flea: Saturday and Sunday 10am to 5pm
Red Hook Ball Fields: Saturday and Sunday 10am to 9pm
Red Hook Mercato: Saturday and Sunday (May to Octobert) noon to 9pm
Summer Stage & Central Park: various dates June to October; for latest schedule, please check summerstage.org
Cariño Restaurant and Cantina: Mexican, Williamsburg
82 S. Fourth St., near Berry Street
Monday to Thursday, Sunday 11am to 11pm; Friday and Saturday 11am to midnight
Taco Chulo: Mexican, Williamsburg
318 Grand St., near Havenmayer
Daily noon to 11pm; Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11am to 5pm
Le Petit Cupcakery: Cupcakes, Williamsburg
N. Sixth St., between Berry Street and Bedford Street
Sunday noon to 8pm
Crop to Cup: Coffee Shop, Brooklyn Heights
139 Atlantic Ave. between Henry Street and Clinton Street
Monday to Friday 7:30am to 6pm; Saturday to Sunday 8am to 6pm
Usuluteco Restaurante Salvadoreño: Salvadoran, Sunset Park
4017 Fifth Ave., between 40th & 41st Streets
Daily 10am to midnight
Sidewalk Stands: Mexican, Sunset Park
Northern corner of 45th Street and Fifth Avenue
Stand outside of Mexican grocery at 4206 Fifth Avenue
Maya Taqueria: Mexican, Prospect Heights
637 Vanderbilt Avenue
Monday to Thursday, Sunday 11:30am to 11pm; Friday to Saturday 11:30am to midnight
Rice, Rice Baby: At Brooklyn Heights’ Crop to Cup, Taylor Mork makes horchata from an Aztec recipe handed down from his friend’s Mexican grandmother, then mixes it into iced espresso.
Conquistadors brought the culinary tradition to the New World where, like its bearers, horchata begat countless regional descendants. And now Latino immigrants have brought the beloved beverage to Brooklyn’s shores.
Whole Lotta Horchata: Ice-cold rice at Maya Taqueria, Crop to Cup, Bahia and Nuevo Mexico.