Summer Recipe: Mexican Horchata

When I was in high school I worked as a soda jerk in an old fashioned soda fountain. It had a pharmacy in the back, operated by an older man who resembled Colonel Sanders - white hair, white jacket, and always a mildly amused expression. While he served prescriptions in the back, we served ice cream in the front. Ice cream came from the dairy business across the back alley and included all the usual culprits: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, black walnut, bubblegum, butter pecan, and my favorite, spumoni.

My favorite customer, and one of the few under the age of 60, was a Mexican girl whose family operated a Mexican food restaurant a few doors down.  She would leave us huge tips, such as $5.00 on a $15.00 order -- a massive increase from the regular crowd who would maybe leave 25 cents.  She always ordered milkshakes, chocolate or vanilla, to go. 

Once, after several visits to our soda fountain, we had lunch together at her family’s restaurant.  She gave me a tour of the back. We had all sorts of Mexican culinary treats I’d never had, the highlights being my first taste of flan and my first taste of horchata. 

I don’t think I knew what horchata was then, or for years to come. I’d see it in restaurants and thought it was just sweetened cow’s milk with cinnamon. I had no idea it was made from rice, or how easy it is to make, nor did I realize how incredibly refreshing it is on a hot day.  

There are actually many different ways to make horchata -- some recipes calling for whole milk, condensed milk, almond flour, rice flour, tiger nuts, sesame seeds, or even rum.  The drink has a rich history and diversity starting in Spain as far back as the eighth century, and expanded across Latin America with regional varieties.  The general concept is a grain/nut/seed milk that sometimes includes cow’s milk, and is sweet and often seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.

My favorite recipe, because of its simplicity of ingredients, follows. 

This recipe yields about 6 servings.

  1. In a blender, blend 1 cup of uncooked long grain white rice in about 4 cups of water until completely ground. This will take 1-2 minutes.
  2. Pour the mixture into a bowl and let it soak 3-4 hours.
  3. Place the soaked mixture in the blender again and blend it for another 1-2 minutes.
  4. Strain the mixture using a nut milk bag or very fine cheese cloth.
  5. Add an additional 4 cups of water to the rice mixture. (Now you have rice milk, essentially.)
  6. Season to taste with ground cinnamon and about a ½ cup of sugar (more or less to taste).
  7. Serve over ice with a straw. 

The horchata will last about 3 days in the fridge, so make the day ahead for parties.