Walk into your favorite taqueria or torteria, and chances are good you'll notice a couple of large, beehive-shaped glass jars standing sentinel atop a shelf or counter. Stepping to the counter, you place your food order, then scanning the menu under bebidas (beverages), you notice words like Jamaica, Horchata, and Tamarindo. Suspicious, you pass them by and order a soda or agua instead.
Big mistake: The drinks contained in those hive jars are as refreshing and satisfying as pure clover honey, although not quite as sweet and much lighter.
Aguas frescas are the non-alcoholic drink of choice for many Hispanics, and they are enjoyed virtually anywhere south of the border, from the Caribbean to Mexico to Central America, plus many U.S. cities that have taquerias. As welcome on a hot day as a dip in the pool, they also pair very well with spicy cuisine. Writer Karen Hirsch Graber comments, "The beverages known in Mexico as aguas frescas are an inspired compliment to the rich melding of chiles, herbs, and spices found in Mexican food. They act to counter-balance strong flavors and are always light, never cloying. Aguas frescas function somewhat like sorbets, in that they refresh the palate."
Basically, aguas frescas are made by combining fruits (or grains such as rice, or nuts), sugar, water, and flavorings such as vanilla or cinnamon. Depending on the season, you may see aguas made from guava, papaya, mango, watermelon, passion fruit, pineapple, or strawberry, but most places that serve them almost always include the three most popular: Tamarindo (made from the sweet/sour fruit best known in Indian cuisine), Jamaica (made from hibiscus and tasting very much like light cranberry juice), and Horchata (made from rice and sweetened with vanilla).
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Sipping one, your first thought may well be, "Wow, that's really good." In my case, that idea was quickly followed by the question, "I wonder how this would taste with a couple shots of rum?" In fact, you can buy alcohol-infused aguas in many bars, and Food Network Diva Giada De Laurentiis has a recipe for Hibiscus Tea with Vodka and Citrus. In any case, writer Amy Scattergood notes in the Los Angeles Times, at least one establishment in Southern California notes a passion for the fruity drinks, even the non-spiked ones:
"Over at the Hollywood restaurant The Hungry Cat, bartenders take their aguas frescas as seriously as their cocktails--a plus for kids and non-drinkers--and if you sit at the bar, you can watch as your agua fresca is created. Aguas frescas aren't on the bar menu, but are offered as daily specials. A peach agua fresca is sweetened with lavender-infused simple syrup. Another Hungry Cat favorite is a cucumber-lime, and before cherry season ends, look for a Bing cherry agua fresca, spiked with lemon and Fresno chile-infused simple syrup.
Proof of aguas appeal to artist and average Jose alike comes courtesy of Guadalupe Rivera, who notes in her book, Frida's Fiestas, that her step-mom, renown Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, enjoyed making aguas frescas during her holiday parties. Luckily, in Dallas you can simply stop by Torteria Insurgentes for traditional Horchata or Jamaica varieties. For an upscale take on aguas frescas, head to your nearest Blue Mesa Grill, where the chef makes them at brunch with seasonal fruits, such as watermelon or strawberry crème. Chances are good that Blue Mesas aguas frescas alongside your Tomatillo Shredded Chicken will make you think twice about ever asking for Diet Coke or plain agua with your brunch again.