Forget Cheerwine. Sweet tea is the nectar of the South. But how many drinks can you name from faraway lands? Ever heard of Ayran? Horchata? Sorrel? Know what makes a Thai iced tea different from your Luzianne? (A lot.) Is ginger beer really beer?
Regional beverages evolve because they work with that culture's food: Ignite a palate, tame a spice, cap a meal. So next time you visit an "ethnic" restaurant, skip the beer or soda and ask if there's a house-made specialty, on- or off-menu. At worst, you'll spend a few dollars extra for a good story. At best, you'll love it and be an expert the next time around.
Here's a tasting guide to some of the Triangle's wildest and weirdest beverages.
Clear or spiced juices
The sweetened fruit-infused water known as aguas frescas provides daily refreshment for much of Mexico and Latin America—and now, North Carolina. Most local taquerias sell a couple of aguas frescas, but Dos Taquitos Centro in Raleigh offers one of the most complete rainbows in town, depending on what's seasonal and available.
"These are made in-house, with sugar, not corn syrup. That's a great alternative to a soda," says owner Angela Salamanca.
She lines up three slim shot glasses on the bar. "Shall we have a little taste?"
The first she pours is bright crimson. It smells delicately floral, on the cusp of soapy, but its flavor is crisp and clean.
"We make Jamaica ["ha-my-ka"] out of dried hibiscus flowers. You put in boiling water, strain it, add some sugar and that's really all we do."
The second shot Salamanca pours is pulpier, heartier ... mango. Like the old orange juice ad, impale a mango with a straw and this is what you'd get.
The third pour is puzzling, unidentifiable, brilliant. It's frutas, says Salamanca, and it's never the same twice.
"On Saturday brunch we have fruit salad, so whatever we have left from that, we blend all together. Lately, our salad has had peaches, of course, watermelon and mango ... In summertime, we make pepina with cucumbers and lime."
Find aguas frescas at Chubby's Tacos Triangle-wide, at Fiesta Grill in Carrboro and most taquerias.
If your hibiscus agua fresca were to crash headlong into a spice cabinet, you'd make sorrel, a Jamaican speciality. Virgil Wilson, the proprietor of a tiny, remarkably tasty take-away shop called Virgil's Jamaica in South Raleigh, is gregarious but cagey about his family recipe.
"Sorrel is made by the hibiscus, the flower of Jamaica. We boil it, let it ferment a bit overnight with fresh ginger, and then sweeten it with sugar, a little bit of cinnamon and other things I can't tell you about because I don't want you publishing it!"
Wilson also handcrafts a zesty ginger "beer" that is neither alcoholic nor carbonated. "It's like ginger ale on steroids. My mom used to make it when we were feeling under the weather." He spreads his fingers, commanding "Smell!" and suddenly there's the bright scent of fresh-grated ginger root.
Though made not from hibiscus but Peruvian corn, the aggressively purple chicha morada at MachuPicchu in Raleigh and Mami Nora's in Durham and Raleigh seems related to sorrel, and in the same spice diaspora. Both would make a lovely vehicle for rum.
Ayran, a salted yogurt drink in Turkish cuisine, should be served very cold and sometimes whipped into a frothy head. On the pleasant brick patio at Bosphorus in Cary, a runner from the kitchen carries mine out, veering first toward a neighboring table where two women converse in lively Turkish. They shake their heads and point to me. My own server later explains that ayran is rarely ordered by non-Turks so he made it less salty for me. I'm slightly offended, but soon mollified by the silky liquid that has all the taste of cottage cheese (not a bad thing) but none of the texture. Ayran's basic (as opposed to acidic) simplicity smoothes out the bold flavors of spiced lamb and a garlicky mezze platter.
Find ayran also at Tallulas in Chapel Hill and Troy Mezze Lounge in Raleigh.
Indian lassi is like a many-headed god whose incarnations range from sweet to salty, pungent to spiced. Recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen and can include turmeric, cardamom, cumin and many more. At The Chefs of India in Cary, the sweet lassi is pearlescent, luminous, with a gentle whiff of French vanilla. It converted even a skeptical 8-year-old, as did the delicious mango lassis at Saffron in Morrisville and Cool Breeze in Cary.
Spiced lassi, however—well, that one is for extreme tasters. As with certain "barnyardy" French wines, some of us may not get past the bouquet. The Chefs of India's version introduces itself with a sulfuric odor and chalky undertones. (Imagine egg-scented Mylanta.) But sip: Your taste buds will light up from chunks of cilantro, green onion and ginger floating in the saltiest yogurt imaginable. It's counter to American expectations, but oddly refreshing.
Thai iced tea is as fun to watch as it is to drink. At Sawasdee in Raleigh, it arrives stratified like geologic plates: rust-hued on bottom, pale sand on top. The "rust" is a concentrate of Chinese or Sri Lankan black tea, the "sand" a generous pour of evaporated milk or half-and-half. Stirred, it takes on the appearance of Pantone peach, which is to say not the actual fruit but the paint chip of what a sassy 10-year-old paints her room. Tasted, it imparts a smoky thickness like a centuries-old opium den, though the only known addictions in this glass are caffeine and heavy cream.
Find it also at Twisted Noodles in Chapel Hill and Durham; ShabaShabu in Raleigh and Durham.
Other milky-tasting drinks served with dinner but good enough for dessert include horchata, an infusion of rice, water, sugar, cinnamon and nuts, strained and iced. Horchata can be found nearly anywhere that serves aguas frescas; at Dos Perros in Durham it's listed with refreshing honesty on the dessert menu ($9), enriched by Kraken black spiced rum, a local egg and piloncillo (dark sugar) syrup.
The "carrot juice" at Virgil's Jamaica is, like Wilson's ginger beer, a slight misnomer. This housemade carrot drink is less the stuff of California muscle-juice bars and more a liquefied carrot cake. The recipe is another of Wilson's secrets, but its richness hints at coconut milk, with a healthy dose of cinnamon and cane sugar. It's a serious treat.
As is bubble tea! Bubble tea is so fun it requires an exclamation point. The dairy-free "milk" tea comes in dozens of flavors, served over ice with tapioca pearl at the bottom. Drink—but don't inhale—the sticky balls through an ingenious fat straw.
Enjoy decadent almond or coconut at Pho 9N9 (Durham), Lime & Basil (Chapel Hill) or Chai's Noodle Bar (Durham and Raleigh), then revisit Indy food writer David A. Ross' exegesis/ode from last autumn.
Teas and coffees
Some beverages naturally take themselves more seriously than others, mocking such frippery as bubble tea.
The iced barley tea at MinGa Korean in Chapel Hill is thin and nearly colorless, the flavor subtle, restrained. It's something a sweet tooth would despise, like seltzer, yet surprisingly likable, a fine foil for Korean pickled vegetables and oily broths. Likewise, though the spiced Ethiopian tea at Abyssinia in Raleigh is flavored aggressively, the concept is mature, suited to simple injera bread and meat stews.
Turkish coffee at Bosphorus is a proper finish to a heavy meal, ordered sweet and brewed over a flame in a single-serving copper ibrik. Its tiny decorative cup recalls the prophetic vessel that Death carries throughout the Balkans in Téa Obreht's novel The Tiger's Wife; one needs not to have read the book to understand the fearsome symbol of a tiny cup half-streaked with fine, muddy grounds.
These are the drinks that transport us to faraway lands, the slow-crafted tastes more meaningful than factory-bottled sodas or beers. These are the conversation starters. These are what make us long to smoke cigarettes and plot coups.
Which nobody does anymore, but we can imagine.