Spanish lore is replete with anecdotes of the origin of horchata. Probably the most popular describes a young woman from L’Horta in Valencia who offered King Jaume I a white, sweet drink. The King was very pleased and asked the young woman, “¿Qué es això?” (“What is this?”) She answered, “Es llet de xufa” (“It is tigernut milk”). The King replied, “¡Això no es llet, això és or, xata!” [“This is not milk; this is gold (‘or’), pretty girl (‘xata’)!] Regardless of the origin, I am thankful someone thought of it!
Orxata de chufa (as it is known in Spain) is made from tigernuts, water, and sugar and is an indispensable part of the Mediterranean diet due, in part, to its many health benefits. Originating in Valencia, horchata comes from the time when Muslims occupied Valencia (from the 8th to the 13th century). History also validates ancient Persian and Arabic writers mentioning the digestive benefits and use of horchata as a medicinal, energy drink. Served ice cold as a summer refreshment, horchata is also known to cut the burning sensation associated with spicy foods. It is also used in place of milk for the lactose intolerant.
To ensure the quality of the product it also has a regulating council (Denominación de Origén). The tigernut (chufa) is cultivated in 16 Valencian towns in the L’Horta Nord area. Approximately 5.3 million kg of chufas are produced here, 90% of which are covered by the denomination of origin. An extensive process guides the tigernuts from the ground to the bag where they will be sold – much of this process is done by hand.
Horchata is not only popular in Spain but has found its way to numerous Latin American countries. Usually tan and “milky,” some recipes actual call for milk (but not the traditional Spanish orxata de chufa). Others call for adding sugar, cinnamon, and/or vanilla. Varying countries use varying ingredients. Mexican horchata is made of rice, sometimes using vanilla and always using cinnamon. In El Salvador they use morro seeds; Nicaragua and Honduras both use jicaro seeds ground with rice and spices. Puerto Rico and Cuba make horchata with sesame seeds and either milk or water. In my humble (yet incredibly biased) opinion, nothing tops the taste of authentic Spanish horchata.
One of my favorite traveling TV foodies, Andrew Zimmern, tried horchata while in Barcelona. Disgusted at the taste he stated, “It tastes like soy milk that’s been seasoned with that stomach medicine your mom made you take when you were a kid. It’s got the drawbacks of both and the benefits of neither…” Don’t believe a word of it! I will never forget my visit to Valencia a few years ago where I sat in the plaza outside an Horchateria with a glass of genuine orxata de chufa. ¡Delicioso! Later that trip I (on multiple occasions) had horchata from the street vendors and it was also a treat never to forget. Who said Andrew Zimmern’s palate is perfect?!
So, where can one find chufa nuts? I recently ran across a site (www.tienda.com) selling dried chufa nuts in a 1 kg bag. Are they worth the cost and effort to seek out? Absolutely! One could probably locate a ready-to-drink version, but why when you can make it from scratch? Here is the basic recipe (attached to the bag I received):
If you do not want to hunt down dried chufa nuts but wish to get an idea as to what all the hype is about try my alternate recipe:
Are you looking for an alternative to a tasty white wine on a hot afternoon (or morning)? If so, why not try orxata de chufa? Who knows, maybe you might be the next one exclaiming, “és or, xata!” ¡Buen Provecho!
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