I've got nothing against the margarita, the go-to Cinco de Mayo refreshment. In fact, it is one of my favorite cocktails. But, say you have to work the next day—even if Jose Cuervo is your amigo on Wednesday night, he might seem more like a frenemy by Thursday morning.
Luckily, alcohol-free bebidas are one of Mexican cuisine's strong suits. Here are five of my favorite aguas frescas (or fresh/cold waters):
1. Horchata. In high school, during a period of fleeting interest in mysticism, I read Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Although eating (unless you count hallucinogens) was never mentioned in the book, its setting in the Sonoran Desert elicited in me a strong Pavlovian craving for Mexican food (something that also happens frequently with no provocation). Consequently, I became such a regular customer at the nearby Mexican food lunch spot, El Conejo, that the cashier gave me a nickname that some friends call me to this day: Lisita.
The other lasting effect of that period was a deep affection for horchata, a sweet and milky (though generally dairy-free) drink made from rice and flavored with cinnamon. Other Spanish-speaking countries have versions made from nuts or containing milk, but the classic Mexican horchata is usually just rice, sugar and cinnamon that have been cooked, pureed and strained. It is just the thing to balance a spicy Mexican meal. And though I can't explain why, exactly, to me it evokes a Mexico that is far from the beach-resort fiesta atmosphere the margarita calls to mind. It tastes something like a cross between Dia de los Muertos sugar skulls and the candles in a Mexican church—not literally, of course.
I don't have stories or strange comparisons to go along with the other four bebidas, but they are still delicious and distinctively Mexican.
2. Tamarindo. The sweet-sour brown pulp of the tamarind fruit is a popular flavoring in Mexican food, especially candy. It is also the basis of a refreshing drink called agua de tamarindo. If you can't find tamarind pods, as this recipe from Rick Bayless calls for, you can probably use tamarind pulp (which is sometimes sold in jars) as a substitute.
3. Jamaica. This deep red, fragrant drink is made from hibiscus flowers (called jamaica in Spanish) and can be served hot or cold. The online Mexican specialty foods store MexGrocer.com sells dried hibiscus flowers if you don't have a Latin-American grocery store in your neighborhood.
4. Agua fresca de pepino. Long before spas discovered the refreshing, restorative qualities of cucumber water, Mexicans have been enjoying agua fresca de pepino. With the addition of a little lime juice and sugar, this cooling drink could make even the hottest day in Nogales tolerable.
5. Atoles. These are something I haven't yet had the opportunity to try, but Diana Kennedy's classic cookbook The Essential Cuisines of Mexico contains a whole section on atoles, which are pre-Columbian in origin and often made with masa, or corn flour. Every region has different varieties, according to Kennedy, and can be flavored with fruit, chocolate or even chiles. Many are served hot or at room temperature, as in this basic recipe.
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!