World Food Spot 5: Horchata, the Elixir of Tiger Nuts

I read about it in some travel book and was intrigued by the way the writer raved about it. So when I had an opportunity to visit Valencia, Spain, I was on the look out for this mysterious white drink. At first, it looked like I might be disappointed. This drink is popular served ice-cold in the summer and Valencian’s like their horchata made relatively fresh. I was there in winter which was the wrong season for it. Almost at the end of my stay, I found a couple of places that still kept some from the last summer. Although the thought me mad to request the drink in winter, they obliged and served it to me. I imbibed. It was quite unlike anything I had drunk before. This squirrel was bowled over, which I suppose makes it a four paws-up recommendation.

“Horchata” today, is used in reference to several vegetable beverages made from ground almonds, rice, barley or tiger nuts. The name is believed to be derived from the Valencian “orxata”, which itself may have arose from “ordiata” which means “made from ordi or barley. Mexican and Central American horchata is normally based on rice and may be flavored with almond paste, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, orange or lime. The version from Ecuador uses ground sesame instead of almonds while the Salvadorean version includes also cocoa and the Morro seed.

It is clear that the drink in the Americas was brought there be the conquering Spanish. The Spanish in turn were introduced to the drink by the Muslim Moors who controlled Valencia from the 8th to 13th Century. The drink in Valencia was derived from tiger nuts.
The practice of making drinks from tiger nuts is actually believed to have started from the region of Chuf, Sudan where tiger nuts or “chufas” were cultivated.

King James I of Aragon (the Conqueror) captured and liberated the city of Valencia from the Moors on the 28th September 1238. Legend says that since capturing cities was a thirsty business, soon after the King sought liquid refreshment and he was offered a milky beverage by an Arab maiden. He asked the name of the drink and the maiden replied that it was the milk of chufas. Impressed by the refreshing qualities of the drink, he is reported to have replied “Això is not llet, això is OR, XATA” (“This is not milk. This is gold, girl.”). Which is how legend explains the name Orxata de xufes (Horchata de Chufas), which is now used to describe the drink made from tiger nuts.

With regards to an earlier post in which I had mentioned horchata, Tai asked me “what were tiger nuts?” I did not know. Well, I looked it up and surprise, surprise, they’re not nuts at all. Tiger nut, Cyperus Sculentus, is a vigorous plant with leafs in rosettes. They are actually a kind of tuber, like a potato. Most of these tubers are grown today under the strict control of the Regulating Council of the Denomination of Origin, Chufa de Valencia. Only a small group of 16 villages produce the tiger nuts and the village of Alboraia is well known for the quality of the tiger nuts.

Why are they called tiger nuts? Well, they do resemble small nuts. I would like to think that they were named “tiger nuts” on account that these small nuts pack an impressive taste with a kick in it. Try it if you have the chance in eastern Spain. See if you would agree with King James I that it is liquid gold.

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