I like to think the agua fresca reconnects me to the ancestors.
Agua frescas have been the pre-Hispanic beverage of choice since the Aztec warriors of Mexico needed a restorative way to chill a millennia ago. This summer in post-Hispanic, Latinx times in Detroit, I learned to use Michigan ingredients to create some of these recipes at home.
There are a plethora of places one can procure a ready-made agua fresca in Detroit. Many of the region’s taquerias, Mexican restaurants, and paleterias like Ice Cream La Michoacana, La Fiesta Ice Cream, and the mango-centric sweet shop Mangonadas del Barrio make classic varieties like horchata, pineapple, strawberry, and mango. Others, like the Nepantla Cafe food truck, have gotten creative, with options like cucumber-ginger and other mocktail-quality refreshments.
The building blocks of aguas frescas are simple, involving just fruit, water, cane sugar, and maybe lime juice. Many recipes also call for grains, nuts, herbs, or seeds for added nutritional benefit. I turned to Fany Gerson’s 2011 book, Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas, which I first came across in 2019 while reporting on the “Paleta Wars.”
I started with hibiscus for the agua de jamaica, a tart, but refreshing iced beverage that I associate with warm summer breezes. The hibiscus flower is native to the subtropical regions of West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which is why we see the electric crimson-colored flower represented in Christmastime Trinidadian sorrels, a variety of teas like Nigerian zobo, and increasingly, in bottles produced by African Americans like Detroit native Nailah Ellis, founder of Ellis Island Tea, the largest Black woman-owned beverage manufacturer in the United States.
In Detroit, I can usually find one-pound bags of the dried flowers for about $5 at Honey Bee La Colmena or Algo Especial. I like to use agave syrup, which dissolves easily in water. Gerson’s recipe calls for steeping in cold water in a saucepan overnight, then heating to a boil and letting simmer briefly, before allowing it to cool to room temperature. The next step involves straining the liquid through a sieve, and pressing the petals with a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible. I personally prefer to let the summer sun do the steeping. Sunshine is a precious commodity in the daylight-starved Upper Midwest, after all.
Once I understood the general principle, suddenly Michigan’s agricultural bounty became my inspiration. I tried a hibiscus with blueberry flavor in July from the Blueberry Guy at Eastern Market. Earlier this month, encouraged by a pineapple coconut recipe I came across on Esteban Castillo’s Chicano Eats Instagram account, I made a batch with pineapple and plump Michigan peaches. Next month, I’ll experiment with Michigan-grown cantaloupes.
Next time you’re feeling disconnected, stressed out by the ills of late-stage capitalism, or just need a rejuvenating beverage on a hot summer’s day in Detroit, just let all the juices steep until you’ve reached peak chill mode.