WHEREVER YOU FIND large populations of people with Spanish last names, you generally find horchata. This miracle of a drink, this dessert-with-dinner treat masquerading as a beverage that tastes like ice cream but is often dairy-free, has entrenched itself around the world on the rusty coattails of the Spanish conquistadors like a paradoxically welcome invasive species — and, like many invasive species (zebra mussels, starlings, tumbleweeds, for example), it ensured its dominance by adapting.

The horchata with which Americans are most familiar is a creamy, sweet, milkshake-like concoction usually made from soaked white rice, sweetened with sugar, and kicked up with cinnamon and sometimes vanilla. This traditional Mexican horchata is ubiquitous in taquerias, usually sitting on the side of the counter by the to-go utensils in a big glass jug along with the other agua frescas, like its mirror twin agua de Jamaica.


Jamaica is bright red, clear, tangy and bracing, and, while it goes by different names in different places, the formula remains surprisingly consistent. Horchata, on the other hand, is creamy, dense, filling — and while any glass of it will look more or less like another, depending on where you are, the ingredients can vary widely under the same name.

That oh-so-tenacious word horchata might come from the Latin word hordeata, or barley, suggesting its origin was an ancient Roman drink made from soaked or boiled grain and flavored with honey, fruit, spices, etc. And while this might be the proto-horchata, what we now think of as horchata originally was a drink made not with grains, but with tiger nuts.

Tiger nuts, aka chufa nuts, aka earth almonds, are stripy little tubers originally cultivated in ancient Egypt. The tiger nut is not a nut, although it does taste very nutty, even somewhat coconutty. These little nuggets of fiber are having a bit of a moment among the detox-minded as a superfood, and the tiger-nut-based horchata is still what one finds when ordering horchata in Spain (horchata de chufa).


This recipe either originated in North Africa and then traveled into Europe with the Moors as they conquered Spain in the 11th century, or possibly was first concocted in Spain when the Moors arrived with carts full of African tiger nuts. A West African drink called kunnu aya that essentially comprises tiger nut milk sweetened and spiced with things such as cardamom suggests the former is more likely (giving horchata yet another point of similarity with Jamaica, which might have come to the Americas via West Africa).

It must be mentioned that there is a romantic alternate origin story for the drink’s name, one that refers specifically to the Valencian version, orxata: As the story goes, King James I of Aragon, ruler of Valencia in the 13th century, supposedly was served that sweet tiger nut drink for the first time by a peasant girl and was inspired to exclaim, “Açò no es llet; açò és or, xata!” Or, “This is not milk; it’s gold, lovely girl!” I’ll let you, the reader, decide which of these etymological fairy tales you prefer.

The concept of horchata traveled with the Spanish conquistadors to the Americas, but the tiger nuts themselves, for some reason, did not. Many Latin American versions use rice, although in some regions, horchata is made instead with jicaro seeds, sesame seeds, morro seeds, peanuts, cashews, etc. Ecuadorian horchata lojana stretches the concept the furthest, as a bright red beverage that is essentially a tangy, vivid herbal tea — far more similar, ironically, to Jamaica.

And horchata, like the conquistadors themselves, made it even farther than the New World. You can find it in India, specifically in the state of Goa, where it is called orchata — a delicious remnant of the days when the region was colonized by the Portuguese. Goan orchata is usually made from freshly extracted almond milk, sugar syrup and rosewater, giving it a distinctly subcontinental flavor profile, like drinkable gulab jamun.

There is an exception, though, to the rule about the Spanish last names. It remains a mystery to me as to why there does not appear to be a version of horchata — called horchata — in the Philippines, where the Spanish left their culinary mark in so many other ways. My pet theory, entirely unfounded by any hard research, is that perhaps because coconut milk already was a thing when the Spanish arrived, there was no thirsty niche into which to introduce another creamy white beverage. Who needs tiger nut milk when you have coconut juice? However, horchata combined with Filipino ube root is now a flavor in boba tea parlors, so it seems the drink made the evolutionary jump required to finally gain a toehold in Southeast Asia, after all.