Stumble across a taquería (or taco stand) in Mexico, and you’ll likely find an assortment of agua fresca (which translates to “fresh water”) options: alcohol-free beverages made from fruits, cereals, flowers, or seeds.

Aside from their delicious flavor, these drinks have become synonymous with Mexican cuisine—one of which stands out in particular is horchata, a rice-based drink that’s flavored with ingredients like cinnamon and vanilla. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Mely Martinez, the founder of Mexico In My Kitchen, who delved more into the history of this refreshing and delicious drink and how to make vegan horchata from scratch. And if you’re pressed for time, we found one of the best store-bought horchata beverages that tastes just as delicious as a homemade batch (and it’s plant-based, too!).

What is horchata, and how is it typically consumed in Mexico?

According to Martinez, the horchata has roots tracing back to Spain and North Africa, where a similar version of this drink is made using tiger nuts. In Mexico, however, horchata is typically made using rice, which gives it its distinct white color. “The rice is first soaked in water overnight and then blended to form a pulp or paste. This is later strained to extract the liquid, to which we add water and sugar, and then mix together to make the horchata,” she says.

To flavor the rice mixture, Martinez says some folks add cinnamon or vanilla extract; others will include milk for a creamier texture. Although, the addition (or not) of milk and ingredient ratios in a horchata recipe will likely vary from family to family and throughout regions.

No matter the recipe, Martinez says one of the best (and most authentic) ways to enjoy horchata is with a typical Mexican antojito, which translates to “little craving” in Spanish. “This typically includes street food, like tostadas and sopes, with a cold glass of this sweet, milk drink. You’ll also find horchata, along with other agua frescas, served at local fairs, social gatherings, family parties, and in restaurants,” Martinez says. “It’s likely the most popular of the aguas frescas, and is a beverage that always makes you feel at home, even if you are somewhere else.”

“[Horchata is] likely the most popular of the aguas frescas, and is a beverage that always makes you feel at home, even if you are somewhere else.”
—Mely Martinez

How to make vegan horchata at home

According to Martinez’s recipe—which she learned from her mom as a child—all you need are five simple ingredients: long-grain rice, Mexican cinnamon (which is milder than other types of cinnamon), sugar, vanilla extract, milk (optional), and a pinch of patience. Then, all you have to do is combine the rice, milk, and hot water in a bowl, and leave it soaking overnight. This step is critical in ensuring that all the rice goodness is properly extracted.

The following day once it’s ready, you’ll blend it all together, strain the mixture, and add the remaining ingredients (plus a little extra water). The result is a delicious sweet, creamy, and smoky drink that Martinez describes as a drink version of rice pudding—aka it’s beyond soul-soothing. Although, keep in mind that if you prefer more or little sweetness, the recipe can be adjusted to suit your taste.

Of course, if you don’t have time to make it from scratch, and you can’t find a vendor nearby, there are great store-bought options to choose from. Our favorite? Rice Dream Horchata. “At DREAM we created our Horchata rice milk with a hint of vanilla, adding a rich flavor that brings a more subtle sweetness. The result is vegan, lactose-and-dairy-free, certified gluten-free, and non-GMO project-verified, while also being shelf-stable to appeal to different dietary preferences,” says Lauren McNamara, vice president and assistant general manager at SunOpta.

According to McNamara, the Dream team (pun intended) worked hard to ensure the drink was as true to its roots as possible. “During the research and development phase when creating Dream Horchata, we crafted this beverage to remain as close to the traditional flavor of horchata and hold the integrity of the original beverage as much as possible,” McNamara says. “We also wanted to ensure our recipe was versatile so it could be enjoyed in many forms including by itself in a glass, over ice or blended, added to coffee, or used for baking.” Swoon.

However, if you’re feeling up for it, we highly recommend making Martinez’s easy homemade horchata recipe below.

horchata recipe
Photo: Mexico In My Kitchen

Easy vegan horchata recipe

Yields 12 servings

2 cups long-grain rice
1 stick Mexican Cinnamon
4 cups hot water
8 cups extra water to finish the drink
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk (2 percent or whole), optional
Ice cubes, to serve

1. Place the rice and cinnamon stick in a large glass bowl and add the 4 cups of hot water. Cover the bowl with a dish or plastic wrap, then let it soak overnight, or at least 8 hours.

2. The next day, pour the rice, cinnamon, and water into your blender and process until it becomes a smooth, watery paste.

3. Using a strainer or sieve, strain the mixture into a wide mouth pitcher, stirring to help the liquid pass through.

4. Add the milk (if using), vanilla extract, and the rest of the water. Stir in the sugar, adjusting the amount to fit your taste. Let the drink chill in the refrigerator. Stir the Horchata before serving, since the rice mix tends to settle at the bottom. Serve in glasses with ice cubes.

Discover how to make chicken tostadas to pair with your refreshing horchata:

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