You never know what you’ll find at Portobello Market.
In London, Mexican food is scarce, and often so inauthentic that the descriptor “Mexican” itself must be called into question. I don’t really care about authenticity that much, and I don’t know enough about “real” Mexican cuisine to be all that rankled by the relative dearth of it here. Besides, I try to take a when-in-Rome attitude to eating wherever I go. I’m quite happy to subsist on British food, not to mention the countless other cuisines that color the London foodscape like dots in a pointillist painting. Happily distracted by Punjabi curries, English roasts, and Alpine cheeses (to name a few), I’ve sort of forgotten about Mexican food. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes crave it – it’s just that I’ve never really sought it out because I figured I wouldn’t find anything that special here. Of course, that’s not a very good attitude to have, but somewhere along the line I subconsciously decided that searching London for dishes like huaraches, carnitas, and mole poblano would be a frustrating and ultimately pointless endeavor.
I’m probably right, to a certain extent. Mainly because there just ain’t that many Mexicans in the UK, certain south-of-the-border specialties available in the United States aren’t likely to find their way across the pond any time soon. That’s what I assumed about horchata, my very favorite Mexican beverage. But what I failed to consider is that horchata is not strictly Mexican. It’s originally Spanish.
London is full of Spaniards and their delectable produce, so why I never thought I’d find horchata here is beyond me. In fact, finding it took no effort at all – I simply happened upon it while out perusing the pewter tankards and skinny ties at Portobello Market. There it was, written on the window of a place called Café Garcia: “HORCHATA,” in between “CORTADA” and “CHURROS.” I was so excited I think I may have jumped in the air a little.
Unhesitatingly I rushed in and ordered one, along with a coffee for Laura and a marshmallowy torta spiked with some kind of liqueur that tasted like vanilla-flavored house paint. The horchata came in a somewhat disappointingly tiny bottle, but that disappointment promptly disappeared when I realized that this was no ordinary horchata: it was horchata… de chufa!
Chufas, apparently called “tiger nuts” (?) in English, are hard little starchy tubers that are used mainly to produce two things: carp bait and horchata. Horchata de chufa is prized for its delicate, nutty, and fruity flavor, but in America (and presumably in Mexico), it is the rarest kind. Until now I had never tried it, and in my head it became a sort of Holy Grail. It did not disappoint. Sweet and refreshing, the horchata de chufa tasted starchy like a potato, fruity like an apple, and nutty like an almond. It reminded me of jicama, a lovely vegetable that I haven’t had in years. It was less cinnamony than the horchatas I was used to – but that’s probably for the best, as too much spice would interfere with that lovely, subtle chufa flavor.
It makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing. Sometimes in my dogged hunts for specific foods causes me to overlook all the other delicious options around me. Often, the places I just stumble upon are more satisfying than the places I seek out.
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