Food & Drink

The Surprising Origins of Horchata

horchata
Chelsea Marotta/Thrillist

It’s no secret that nowadays horchata is a trendy drink in the U.S., with chains like Starbucks creating their own spin on the beverage, to local restaurants across the country making their own versions. You can visit you Walmart and buy everything from horchata protein drinks to the classic recipe by the carton. In 2019, horchata became one of the most popular flavors in the country, with a 257% spike in sales growth. You could say it became the drink of the summer. And of course, the icy beverage has long been a staple at a variety of Latin American restaurants across the states.

But what exactly is horchata? The delicious, creamy drink was originally made from dried and ground tiger nuts. The milky results are combined with water and sugar, then filtered to create a taste similar to rice pudding. This version is called horchata de cufa, and it was made popular in Spain.

You may be more familiar with the Mexican version. It’s made from rice milk, cinnamon, and sugar, and has a more milky texture.

The truth is, there is no one way of making horchata. Other countries have their own unique spin on the drink, all using different plant-based ingredients.

In Puerto Rico, the drink is known as horchata de ajonjoli, which usually consists of ground sesame seeds, rum, and coconut milk. In Central America, countries like El Salvador and Honduras call it semilla de jicaro, and it’s made using the licorice-flavored seeds from the calabash (a gourd that grows on a tree). In Ecuador, horchata lojana is more of a red herbal tea made from flowers.

While horchata de chufa was popularized in Spain, it originated in North Africa, specifically present-day Nigeria and Mali, as far back as 2400 B.C. The Moors brought it to Spain during the Muslim conquest. In Valencia it got its name, “horchata.” Before that, it was known as “kuunu aya,” as it’s still popularly known in Nigeria.

African countries have a long history of influencing Latin American culture. You can see it in the music, the languages, and most importantly, in the food. From the ingredients to the spices to the cooking techniques, Latin cuisine is a fusion of multiple cultures, including those from Africa.

This is largely because many Latin American countries have significant populations of people of African ancestry, due to the slave trade and other migration movements. In fact, Brazil has the largest concentration of people of African ancestry outside of Africa. Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela also have sizable populations of people of African descent, notwithstanding years of colorism in those countries, even to the point of attempts at ethnically cleansing. Horchata de chufa is a tribute to the resilience of Black Latin American culture. People have found ways to preserve their African traditions, especially in their food. And these traditional dishes are still beloved both within and outside the Latin community. 

No matter what version of horchata you choose to indulge in, the famous Latin American drink is now part of North American food culture as well, whether it’s the classic recipe or a flavor of ice cream. Latin American cuisine has always been a beautiful melange of cultural influences, and its African roots are an essential part of that mosaic.

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Dana Givens is a Thrillist contributor.