By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Ask almost anyone who was born, raised, and lives in Mexico about Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) and they are likely to tell you that it is a minor Mexican holiday celebrating the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over the French troops sent by Napoleon to the city of Puebla. Ask almost anyone who was born, raised, and lives in the U.S. the same question, and they are likely to reply that Cinco de Mayo is a major Mexican holiday celebrated with drinking and eating “Mexican food.”
Last year, at the height of the COVID pandemic, even in our little retirement community, the U.S. celebration of Cinco de Mayo could not be denied. Our residents appeared in their driveways or balconies, all masked and socially distant to hear a roving mariachi band. And since we are in the U.S., there was thunderous applause for the final number, “The Mexican Hat Dance.” But we all yearned for the pre-COVID days, when we could gather in the community social hall for guacamole and chips and a variety of Mexican cervezas (beers). The centerpiece on the serving table in the hall was the presentation of three huge glass containers sparkling with nonalcoholic beverages in the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green.
Red, the color of the flag’s vertical stripe the farthest from the flagpole, was represented by agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea). Jamaica is ubiquitous in Mexico and most often served iced, a sweet and tart, most refreshing drink on a hot day. The hibiscus flowers, which are used to brew the tea, can be purchased dried and in plastic bags in most grocery stores in Mexico and in Mexican grocery stores north of the border. But we prefer to help support the vendors who hawk the flowers in parks and beaches in areas in Mexico where the red hibiscus plants are abundant – plus their flowers are usually fresher and more flavorful.
Preparation of jamaica is very simple. Add two cups of the flowers to one quart of cold water in a pot, bring the water to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and after 7 minutes remove the pot from the stove. Allow the tea to steep until cool. Strain the tea through a fine mesh into a glass jar, discard the flowers, and refrigerate this concentrate until ready to use.
Before serving, fill a large glass pitcher with ice cubes and pour the concentrate over the cubes. Add sugar to taste and mix briskly until completely dissolved. Mexicans prefer their jamaica, as many other beverages, very sweet. To achieve this taste, add 1 cup or more of sugar. If you prefer the very tart taste or want to keep diabetes at bay, leave out the sugar completely, or begin with one tablespoon of sugar and add a little more if needed.
Green, the color of the flag’s vertical stripe nearest the flagpole, can be represented by any number of juices or flavored water (agua fresca) prepared with green vegetables. We prefer the cooling taste of pepino (cucumber) with a hint of mint. The easiest method of preparing this drink is to peel 4 cucumbers, slice them, and blend them with 4 cups of water and a few sprigs of mint. But for the deeper green color of the Mexican flag, do not peel the cukes; wash them, slice off and discard the ends, and blend the slices with 3 cups of water and a generous handful of mint leaves with the stems trimmed; then strain and discard the solids before refrigerating. If you don’t mind the grainy texture, do not strain. Cucumber skins are good for one’s health, but we prefer a less thick drink. Serve undiluted cold, or pour over ice in individual glasses with a sprig of mint. Once again, for a truly Mexican taste, add the strained juice of 5 fresh limes and lots of sugar. While the result will be delicious, skipping this step may help you live until next Cinco de Mayo.
The central vertical stripe on the Mexican flag, bearing Mexico’s coat of arms, can best be recreated with a rich, milk-colored beverage called horchata. When we first started traveling around Mexico, we were surprised by how many adults in restaurants seemed to be drinking glasses of milk. We were disabused of this fallacy after standing on line for almost an hour to be seated in the famous restaurant La Chata in Guadalajara. After seeing almost everyone in the restaurant being served large glasses of a white beverage, we asked our server what they were drinking. She smiled, pegging us immediately as foreigners, and brought us two glasses. We instantly became high on this non-alcoholic drink. It was, of course, a sugar high.
The primary ingredients in horchata are white rice, cinnamon sticks, vanilla extract, evaporated milk/regular milk and, of course, sugar. Since the preparation involves hours of soaking, blending and straining, we’ve never made our own. But we’ve purchased the drink in bottles in supermarkets and ordered it in other restaurants. The taste has most often been pleasant but never reached the supreme level of that in La Chata – until we sampled the horchata prepared by our own community chef in California, Paulo Carvalo, on Cinco de Mayo two years ago. An horchata to rival La Chata! We begged our chef for his recipe to include in this article; he graciously provided it.
Chef Paolo’s Traditional Horchata
1 cup rice
2 cinnamon sticks
8 cups water
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup milk
1 cup condensed milk
1 cup evaporated milk
sugar to taste
- Wash and drain the rice.
- Place the rice and cinnamon sticks in a bowl and add 4 cups of water. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
- Blend the rice and cinnamon sticks until pureed.
- Using a fine strainer, pour the blended mixture into a pitcher.
- Stir in the milks, vanilla and another 4 cups of water.
- Taste and add sugar or water if needed.
- Chill and stir before serving over ice.
Happy Cinco de Mayo – and bottoms up wherever you are!