Poor chia. When you google it on the web you are assaulted by two kinds of sites.
1. Chia pets. If you’ve never encountered these, they are little toy animals, in the US made of pottery, in Mexico made of nylon stockings stuffed with sawdust, with chia seeds embedded in the toy. Water it and it sprouts green shoots.
2. Wonder food sites. Chia is pronounced the next wonder food, full of omega-3 fats, and just waiting to be discovered. Sadly this is in the magic bullet tradition of seizing on one foodstuff as a cure all.
What a sad decline for a plant with a glorious and honorable past. And one that makes one that makes a quick, easy and very delicious agua fresca, at least if you like texture in a drink. It’s popular in Mexico but more as a home drink than as a street drink.
But first a bit of history.
History of chia
Given the contemporary nonsense surrounding chia, it was a huge relief to find a well-researched article in Economic Botany 57 (4), 2003 by Joseph Cahill at the University of California, Riverside on the history and uses of chia.
Chia comes from Central America. Here’s a photo of these seeds if you’ve never seen them. They’re only a millimeter or so long. They’re also slightly disconcerting as they cling together and move about as if of their own accord. It’s part of the vast mint family that’s been such a boon to humans. Its official Latin name is Salvia hispanica.
It was an enormously important crop in pre-hispanic Mexico, more important than the more widely known amaranth. The seeds were used by warriors and travelers, they were ground with maize to make an instant drink, they were valued for their oil content, they were used in medicine, they were used to glaze pots. Quite a plant and worthy of an essay in its own right but we’re on a agua fresca trail.
Agua de chia. Finally. This is how you make agua de chia. You make a regular limonada. Then for a glass you add about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of chia seeds. Then you wait ten minutes. The seeds magically turn gelatinous. You drink it, letting your tongue and palate explore the contrast between the liquid and the slightly gooey little balloons surrounding the seeds. Quite lovely, at least in my book.
You could add chia seeds to any agua fresca, or course, or just to water. You want a thin agua though so you can enjoy the texture. Many aguas (like guava and papaya that we’ll come to) are thicker and the effect of the chia seeds would be lost.
Finding and storing chia
You can buy chia in health food stores, at least in the US and Argentina, and in markets in Mexico in the stalls that specialise in all kinds of seeds and grains.
You have to be a bit careful because if chia seeds are not kept well, they won’t do what they should. Here’s a photo of a very sad agua de chia. Even after a day, the seeds had not swelled and turned gelatinous.
Buy a small amount. Try it out. If the seeds swell after 10 minutes in water, then buy more from the same source and keep it in the refrigerator.
Morals of the tale
You could think of agua de chia as part of the vast family of limonadas. And so it is, a lovely variant on the basic limonada.
But you can also think of it as part of a world of archaic drinks that we are in danger of losing. It was an honorable drink for thousands of years before the acidity of lime and the sweetness of sugar gave it added savor. Like many of them it bridged the medicinal and the gastronomic.
And this hints at some of the things I want to explore in this series: the extraordinary range of seeds, nuts, flowers, roots and other things besides fruits that have gone into this huge category of drinks.