Rachel Laudan

Does the horchata family of drinks stretch as far as China?

The horchata family of drinks are suspensions or emulsions of grains, nuts, seeds, or roots in water, almost invariably sweetened to some degree. It is my belief that they go back to Antiquity gained popularity in the Islamic world in the middle ages, and then spread north across Europe, south across the Sahara and west with the Spaniards to the Americas.

Discussing my last round up post on the horchata family, Stanford Chiou raised the question of whether certain drinks in China, particularly soy milk and apricot kernel tea (usually translated as almond milk) owed anything to the horchata.  Given the many transfers of plants and culinary techniques back and forth between China and points west, particularly Persia and India) from prehistory on, it’s a perfectly good question.

Here’s what Stanford has to say.

“The heart of the classic Taiwanese breakfast is soy milk, but both the Taiwanese breakfast and the ubiquity of soy milk in Taiwan are recent developments. Both are the legacy of the Shanghainese among the Chinese Nationalists who fled to Taiwan as a result of their defeat by the Chinese Communists, as well as copious food aid in the form of soybeans and wheat from the Nationalists’ American allies.

According to my father, the prevalence that soy milk now enjoys in the Taiwanese diet was once held by another creamy horchata-like beverage known in Taiwanese as “hīng-jîn-tê” and in Mandarin as “xìngrénchá”. Both are written using the characters “杏仁茶” which is often translated as “almond milk” because of its similarity to Western almond milks, but a more literal translation would be “apricot kernel tea”.

The characters “杏仁” can denote either the almond (Prunus amygdalus) or the apricot kernel (Prunus armeniaca), but only the latter is used to make this beverage. There are two cultivars of apricot kernel, southern (南杏) and northern (北杏). Care must be taken if using the northern cultivar, because its high levels of natural cyanide can reach toxic levels easily. Recipes for xìngrénchá often omit northern kernels or use them in limited amounts, typically a 1:4 ratio of northern to southern.

The literal translation of “茶” is tea, and it usually means just that. However, “茶” is sometimes used to refer to beverages such as xìngrénchá that contain no actual tea, or even soups (e.g. bak kut teh).

Adding a setting agent to xìngrénchá will produce what is usually translated “almond tofu” (杏仁豆腐), which of course contains neither almonds nor tofu. In the West, apricot kernels are used in amaretto liqueur to complement almonds, or sometimes replace them entirely.”

Stanford and I are agreed that soy milk is probably a different tradition. It did not become a widely popular drink until the second half of the twentieth century, as Stanford Chiou’s father explained. For more on the factors leading to this, including parallels with cow’s milk which was becoming viewed as a perfect food around the globe, the growing production of soy beans, and commercial interests, see the discussion of soy milk in William Shurtleff, H.T. Huang, and Akiko Aioyagi’s, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in China and Taiwan (2014).

I would add that there are other differences, none of them individually decisive, but collectively suggestive.  (1) Although a milky substance had been made from soy probably from between 200 BC to 200 AD on, it was a way station to making other products such as tofu and bean curd (see the long discussion in H. T. Huang, Fermentations and Food Science (2000), 299-333..  (2) Soy beans are legumes and I know of no member of the horchata family being made of legumes (of course, this is tempting fate. (3) Soy beans are ground wet to make soy milk.  It is not clear that this is usually so for members of the horchata family (though it would be interesting to know how chufa nuts were ground traditionally). (4) Soy milk is drunk warm to rid it of a “beany” taste, horchatas are generally drunk cold (tempting fate here once more).

Apricot kernel tea is a more promising candidate, especially since the common belief is that the apricot originated in Armenia.  Even here, though, I am doubtful.  I would locate it instead in the  wealth of medical infusions or decoctions taken by the Chinese from at least the Song Dynasty on, including tea and apricot kernels described in James Benn’s Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History (2015).

So my answer to the question, “Does the horchata family of drinks stretch as far as China?” is tentatively “No.”

Stanford and I would love other thoughts on this.

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3 thoughts on “Does the horchata family of drinks stretch as far as China?

  1. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton

    Where does eating-the-seed-corn end and raising seeds to be eaten begin? (a question with many answers, only some of which I know)

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I come down on the “you have to know how to prepare the seeds before you begin to grow them” side. Then you inch in to raising seeds to be eaten. Good to hear from you Barbara.

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