The Cultural Heritage of Plant Milks

Most nuts can be made into a plant milk by, soaking overnight to soften, then blending with water into a paste and using cloth to strain. You can also add vanilla, salt or other flavorings to taste.

Plant-based milks have been consumed by various cultures around the world for centuries, offering not only nutritional benefits but also serving as cultural staples in many societies. These milks, derived from plants, grains, and nuts, have been used both as a substitute for animal milk and as a unique dietary element in their own right.

One of the earliest known plant milks is soy milk, which has its origins in China. Historical records suggest that soy milk has been consumed since the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). It was traditionally made by soaking soybeans, grinding them with water, and then boiling the mixture. Soy milk has played a significant role in Chinese cuisine and has been embraced by other cultures, especially those following vegetarian or vegan diets, due to its high protein content.

Almond milk is another variety that has been enjoyed for centuries, particularly in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Historical texts indicate that almond milk was a common ingredient in medieval European cooking, valued both for its flavor and its suitability for consumption during Lent, when the consumption of animal products was forbidden by the Church. Similarly, rice milk has been a staple in Asian cultures, made by processing rice with water. It is often sweetened and flavored, serving as a base for traditional desserts and beverages.

In the Americas, particularly in Mexico and Central America, horchata (see recipe below) made from rice or tiger nuts (chufas) has been a popular beverage, showcasing another regional variation of plant-based milk. The Mayans and Aztecs in Mesoamerica also made a drink called “atole” from ground corn mixed with water. Each of these plant milks reflects not only the agricultural practices and dietary preferences of the cultures that developed them but also their adaptability to different culinary contexts, from beverages and cooking ingredients to nutritional supplements. As the global community becomes more interconnected and environmentally conscious, the variety and popularity of plant-based milks continue to grow, blending tradition with innovation.

Tiger nuts, also known as chufa, yellow nutsedge, or earth almonds, are not actually nuts, but rather edible tubers. They’re the size of a chickpea but wrinkly with a chewy texture and sweet nutty flavor similar to coconut. Tiger nuts were one of the first plants cultivated in Egypt and traditionally used as both food and medicine.

A Resurgance Driven by Climate Change

Plant-based milks have grown in popularity as consumers seek more sustainable and health-conscious alternatives to dairy. When comparing plant milks for sustainability and nutrition, it’s essential to consider factors such as water usage, land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and nutritional content.

Almond milk is a favorite for its creamy texture and nutty flavor. However, it’s less favorable from a sustainability standpoint due to the significant amount of water required to grow almonds, especially concerning given that much of almond farming takes place in drought-prone regions. Nutritionally, almond milk is lower in calories and protein than cow’s milk but often enriched with vitamins and minerals.

In Australia 99% of orchards use drip irrigation systems designed to match the soil water-holding capacity. Many growers use sophisticated technology to measure and control water stress in almond trees, with climate data analysis coupled with plant and soil-based sensors, used to plan, monitor and adapt irrigation scheduling to meet tree requirements and minimise unnecessary water use.

Soy milk stands out for its nutritional profile, closely mirroring that of cow’s milk in protein content and offering a good balance of fats and carbohydrates. It’s also environmentally friendly, with soybeans requiring less water and land compared to almonds, and producing fewer greenhouse gases. However, concerns over GMOs and deforestation linked to soy production can affect its sustainability perception, although most soy used for milk is not from deforested areas.

Oat milk is gaining popularity for its lower environmental impact and excellent sustainability credentials. Oats require less water and land than almonds and emit fewer greenhouse gases during production. Nutrition-wise, oat milk is rich in dietary fibers and is often fortified with vitamins and minerals, making it a heart-healthy choice. However, it’s typically higher in carbohydrates and calories compared to other plant milks.

When considering both sustainability and nutrition, soy and oat milks emerge as strong contenders, offering a balance of environmental benefits and nutritional value. Almond milk, while popular, poses more significant environmental challenges. Ultimately, the choice of plant milk might depend on individual dietary needs, environmental concerns, and taste preferences, underscoring the importance of a diversified approach to plant-based nutrition and sustainability.

Plant milks can have a beneficial impact on our nutirion and environmental footprint—but, they also provide a unique flavors and heritage.

Recipe for Horchata

Horchata, a refreshing and creamy beverage with roots in various cultures around the world, has found a delightful variation in the form of plant milk horchata. This version caters to a wide array of dietary preferences, offering a dairy-free twist on the traditional recipe. Here’s how you can make your own plant milk horchata at home.

To start, you’ll need the following ingredients:

  • 1 cup of uncooked white long-grain rice
  • 5 cups of water (divided into 2 cups for soaking and 3 cups for blending)
  • 1 cup of your favorite plant milk (almond, tiger nut, rice or oat milk work wonderfully)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup of sugar, depending on your sweetness preference
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon or one cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)
  • Ice cubes for serving

Begin by rinsing the rice under cold water until the water runs clear. Soak the rice in 2 cups of water in a bowl, covering it and letting it sit at room temperature for a minimum of 2 hours, though overnight is ideal. This soaking process is crucial as it softens the rice, making it easier to blend and extract its flavor.

After the rice has soaked, strain it and discard the water. Place the soaked rice in a blender, adding 3 cups of fresh water, the ground cinnamon (or cinnamon stick), and vanilla extract if using. Blend the mixture on high until it’s as smooth as possible. Strain this mixture using a fine mesh sieve or a cheesecloth into a pitcher, pressing or squeezing to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the rice pulp.

Add the plant milk to the rice water mixture in the pitcher, stirring to combine. Sweeten with sugar to your liking, stirring until it dissolves completely. Taste and adjust the levels of sweetness and cinnamon if necessary. Chill the horchata in the refrigerator until it’s cold or serve immediately over ice cubes. For an extra touch of elegance and flavor, sprinkle a little ground cinnamon on top before serving.

This plant milk horchata is not only a fantastic dairy-free alternative but also a versatile beverage that pairs well with a wide range of dishes, especially spicy foods. Its creamy texture and distinctive flavor make it a hit at gatherings or a soothing treat on a warm day. Enjoy your homemade plant milk horchata and feel free to experiment with different plant milks to find your perfect match.

Inga Yandell
Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.