Horchata, the Sweet Latin Drink That Gets Around

Horchata, as it is served at Moroni & Brothers in Petworth.
Horchata, as it is served at Moroni & Brothers in Petworth. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
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By Joel Denker
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ask a Salvadoran or Mexican which country is home to the best version of the refreshing milky-white beverage called horchata, and you can guess the answer. Salvadorans are fiercely loyal to their horchata, made from the seeds of morro, a green, hard-shelled fruit that looks like a coconut. Mexicans are just as steadfast about their rice-based drink, which Salvadorans won't touch.

Spaniards, who consider their nation the parent of the real horchata, dismiss the claims by people from their former colonies. They insist that their creation, prepared from roots they call "earth almonds," is the only drink worthy of the name.

This pale drink, a perfect cooler at the beginning of a hot Washington summer, is ubiquitous at the area's Central American eateries. But it comes in many guises, and to most non-Hispanic diners it remains a bit of a mystery, so I set out to understand the story behind it. Or, rather, them.

At Moroni & Brothers, a combination pizzeria and Salvadoran restaurant in the Petworth neighborhood, José Denis Velasquez, who owns the business with his wife, Reyna, sheds light on his country's drink. Growing up in the campo (countryside), Velasquez very early absorbed the lore of horchata. "I made it as a little boy," the 38-year-old Salvadoran remembers.

The morro grows on a wide-branched tree, part of the calabash family. The small, gourdlike fruit stands out because it is attached directly to the tree's trunk and branches. For farming families, morro trees were a prominent part of the landscape.

The black, lentil-shaped seeds are the tree's coveted treasure. Pried from the fruit's pulp, "they are put in the sun to dry and then they're ready to be ground," Velasquez says. The resulting powder is blended with water to make horchata. The seeds have a hypnotic smell, Velasquez says, something like that of the Ligurian olives he worked with at Dupont Circle's Pizzeria Paradiso.

Velasquez scorns citified horchata and says extra ingredients, such as the peanuts and pumpkin seeds in the packaged mixes sold in American and Salvadoran cities, corrupt the basic drink. "In the country, they will make it more plain," he says. "It will smell more natural."

He also doesn't like the growing tendency toward using milk instead of water. "In my country, you never, never use milk," he insists.

Because morro seeds are not available in the United States, Moroni & Brothers makes do with packaged horchata mix. Companies have sprung up to sell the product to Salvadoran retailers and consumers. Laurel-based Rio Grande Foods, the largest seller of horchata mix on the East Coast, processes morro seeds at plants in El Salvador. Charlie Rizzo, the firm's vice president, says his mix has one simple drawing card: "a lot of morro." Customers "pick up a little bag and smell it" to detect the seed's fragrance, he says.

The Salvadorans' bond with horchata is strengthened by their attachment to the morro tree. Its canopy offers shade on hot days. Its fruit nourishes their animals. And the hollow morro shells were valuable household containers. The tree inspires devotion in a religious people: Its distinctive leaves, says Melvin Nunez, a baker at the Cosi coffee shop north of Dupont Circle, are shaped like crosses and transfixed early Spanish explorers of the Americas.

Mexicans, also avid horchata drinkers, are wedded to their own national recipe, Rizzo says.

Luis Marroquin, the owner of Taqueria Distrito Federal in Columbia Heights, straddles the two cultures. A native Salvadoran, this 50-year-old entrepreneur lived in Mexico for many years. He is evenhanded about the rival horchatas: "Every country has a different taste." But because he is trying to re-create the atmosphere of a Mexican taqueria, Marroquin serves that country's aguas frescas (fresh waters): tart tamarind; Jamaica (pronounced ha-MIKE-uh), a sweet and sour hibiscus drink; and, of course, creamy horchata. The drinks are a cooling complement to pungent tacos bursting with goat, chorizo, pork rib meat and other fillings. "It's not going to be a taqueria without horchata," he says.

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