When we moved back to Starkville after the better part of 10 years in a kingdom far, far away, there were several key things that let me know we were truly back in the South: huge magnolia trees, blooming cotton fields and true barbecue, just to name a few. And of course, along with that succulent smoked porcine happiness, a cup of cold sweet tea is never far away. But here’s the twist that really solidified my southern homecoming. I discovered I could also get a pretty decent sweet tea in perhaps the oddest of places: the Mexican restaurant. It hit me as I was washing down a bowl of tortilla chips and salsa: this tea is pretty doggone good, and I’m pretty sure this is not a typical Mexican drink. But in Mississippi I doubt you’d find a Mexican restaurant that does not serve it. Sweet tea with fajitas may not be everyone’s classic definition of fusion cooking, but sometimes it just hits the spot.
All that being said, I am still an advocate of authenticity. I really try to experience the cultures of other lands (foodways in particular) as best I can, even as I am experiencing them in Mississippi. As far back as … pretty far back, I remember ordering hot tea at House of Kong just because it seemed the right thing to do in a Chinese restaurant. I still do that from time to time, especially now that I am grown-up enough to know to add sugar. But my habits have evolved in other ways, too, when it comes to drink choices at ethnic dining establishments.
These days, the back page of the menu gets a look, too.Back in the day, we had to drive all the way to Jackson to experience the show of Japanese hibachi-style cooking. Now we have Umi right here in town, and I like to wash down that hot-from-the-hibachi food with a Ramune’ Japanese soda. It comes in a variety of fruity flavors — my favorite is melon, if only because melon-flavored soda can’t be found just anywhere. But the most interesting aspect of the Ramune’ is not the flavor — it’s the way you have to drink it. It comes in an oddly-shaped glass bottle with a plastic top. Not so odd? Just wait. The top is disassembled to reveal a tool of sorts which is pressed into the top of the bottle to dislodge a glass marble. The marble then sinks into the bottle, but only so far (this is where the odd shape comes into play). When the bottle is tipped up to drink there are built-in ridges to catch the marble so it doesn’t block the opening again. However, the ridges are only on one side, so if one were to drink from the wrong side then the marble returns to its original position and one would remain thirsty. An engineer with not enough to do must have come up with this. This is thinking drinking.
The drink containers at Gordo’s Peruvian restaurant are not as tricky to maneuver, but they do offer a couple of interesting thirst-quenching alternatives. The first time I ever ate there I ordered an Inca Kola. It is only a cola in name, so be aware of that — no cola flavor that I could detect, and gold in color. On the menu it is described as having something between a bubble-gum and pineapple flavor, and I would have to agree. There are definitely notes of Super Bubble in this soda. The other option is something called Chicha Morada, which the folks at Gordo’s suggest may be the national Peruvian soft drink.
It is made from purple corn, and the cup I sampled recently was definitely very purple. I don’t know exactly how it is made at Gordo’s, but one recipe I found online included purple corn (of course), apple, pineapple, quince, cinnamon, clove and lime juice. I really liked it and will definitely be ordering it next time I have a hankering for yucca fries or tostones.
Unfortunately, we lost our main source for Arabian food when Desert Rose closed down, but I still think it deserves a mention here. They offered another reddish-purple drink called karkade’ tea which was pretty good hot or iced. This is one of the drinks I had discovered in my travels to the Arab region, so it was already familiar to me, unlike Inca Kola and marbleized melon. It is made from the flowers of the hibiscus plant, and is actually a fairly common drink worldwide, maybe even mildly medicinal. In Nashville we had some at a taco joint, and they called it Jamaica tea, but in Jamaica they call it sorrel. Go figure. Ever had Red Zinger tea? Welcome to the karkade’ klub.
Now we’re back full circle to the Mexican restaurant. We have already established that you won’t necessarily go wrong ordering iced tea if that’s what floats your fajitas. These days, however, I am more likely to order a Jarritos soda. These are Mexican sodas that come in nearly a dozen different flavors, mostly fruit — lime, mandarin, mango, pineapple, fruit punch, grapefruit and tamarind are the ones I have seen in Stark-Patch, either at restaurants or grocery stores. I was particularly interested in the tamarind flavor, given that I had experienced all the other fruits in their original non-fizzy forms. The tamarind, as I have learned, is a pod-like fruit with a sweet and/or sour taste indigenous to Africa, Asia and Arabia and was brought to Mexico in the 16th century where it was promptly made into soda and sent to Mississippi. Or something like that.
So the next time you go out to eat, no matter what language your menu may be translated from, order the sweet tea if you must — it’s probably pretty good. But consider this: sometimes it’s okay to drink the purple kool-aid.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .