Tamarind, melon, pineapple: Beat the heat with icy agua fresca

By Evan Kleiman

An agua fresca stand at the Orange County Fair offers several flavors. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

In Southern California, the heat can blindside us anytime. A good remedy is the Mexican refresher called agua fresca. The literal translation is “fresh water,” which is an apt description of an iced drink made of water that’s mixed with minced or pureed fruit or vegetables, sweetened with a bit of sugar, and seasoned with lime or lemon juice. Think of it as a weak lemonade reinforced with other flavors. 

An agua fresca is not a fruit or vegetable juice made simply of pureed fruit or vegetable juices. Rather, it’s sweetened and acidified water flavored with chopped or pureed fruit or vegetables. You often see agua fresca made with soft fruit like mango, melon, pineapple, or strawberries. But it’s often made with flowers, like the red tinted jamaica, pods like tamarind, or grains like horchata. 

One of the most popular in hot weather is agua de pepino, or cucumber water, to which chia seeds are sometimes added to slightly thicken the liquid. If I happen to find passion fruit, they’re fantastic added to any other ingredient to pump up the flavor of your agua fresca.

Try the mango slush at Xtra Bionicos Allexis.

But you can get creative depending on what’s in season or what you have on hand. I recently made a batch of agua fresca with some frozen boysenberries I bought when they were in season at the farmers market. I simply put the amount of berries I wanted in a bowl and added a bit of sugar to pull out the juice. I squeezed a couple of limes over and let the berries defrost. Once they were soft, I used a potato masher to get a coarse puree. Then I mixed it up with water until it tasted right to me. I ended up adding a tad more lime juice. Then I strained out the berries, added ice, and put it in the fridge to get nice and cold. I’ll use the strained berries in my next batch of scones.

At the end of summer, there is a lot of produce to work with, and we all have our preferences. When I need a quick quencher that I can gulp down, I find a cucumber agua to be incredibly refreshing, while one made from whatever ripe, fragrant melon I can find feels like a cooling treat to sip. You can use whatever sweetener you prefer, but I would caution you to not make the drink overly sweet. The balance of sweetness with the sour of the lime is what slakes one’s thirst, and of course the temperature of the drink. Serve them icy cold. 

You can find agua frescas all over Southern California. I always go for the unfamiliar on display to push myself to try something new. There are lots of aguas frescas to be had in improvised spaces in Southern California. Here are a few to try.

Mercado La Paloma, Los Angeles

Chichen Itza
Mercado La Paloma, Los Angeles

Multiple locations

Xtra Bionicos Allexis
1552 W. Adams Blvd, Los Angeles

Michelagua Queen
850 Echo Park Ave, Los Angeles

Aguas Frescas
Street stand at 4576 Worth St, Los Angeles

Rico Tejuino
2707 1/2 N Broadway, Los Angeles