That Ain't Coconut Water, It's Pulque
Among the cans of Sprite and bottles of Jarritos at Mexican bodegas, restaurants, and grocery-with-a-taqueria-in-back hybrids throughout the city, there may be the occasional can of pulque ($2-$2.50) on the shelf, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. Without fizz but with a bit of froth and a pleasantly sweet flavor, pulque's milky hue might be confused with coconut water. The ancient Mesoamerican technique of harvesting the maguey sap and turning it into various drinkable wonders (it's the same starting liquid that eventually becomes tequila and mezcal) has followed a winding trajectory over the years.
Once a sacred drink reserved for the cultural elite, pulque diffused into a widespread pedestrian tipple, which eventually fell out of fashion as European beer culture spread with an influx of European immigrants in the early twentieth century. At the turn of the century, however, Mexico City was still home to hundreds of pulquerias, taverns where citizens would gather after a hard day's work for a little town gossip and a frothy mug of pulque. The drink was served fresh, brought in from the surrounding provinces, and tossed out when past its prime.
The process of pulque production largely defies industrialization. Each maguey plant must reach maturity before its sap can be tapped for harvest, which can take nine to twelve years. Once the plant is old enough to produce, the center is scored and the sap, or aguamiel, trickles into the center of the plant, is siphoned off, and is left to ferment in large vats with the addition of a bacterium starter. As a fresh product, pulque must be drunk within the week, though commercialized versions have been canned, extending its shelf-life and halting the continual fermentation. With approximately 5% alcohol, pulque is crisp and refreshing -- a beverage that should not be relegated to the back of the fridge.
Where to find it:
Tulcingo De Valle, 665 10th Ave. #1; 212-262-5510; tulcingorestaurant.com
Mexico 2000, 367 Broadway, Brooklyn; 718-782-3797
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city's best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.
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