Coffee, OJ, milk, and the occasional Bloody Mary—these are the drinks that quench the American breakfast table. While culturally ingrained as classic accompaniments to cereal, eggs, and toast, in other countries these beverages might read like an odd addition to the morning meal. And, of course, the flip side here is that popular international a.m. refreshments may not exactly jive with our customary tastes. Below, a look at six unique drinks to consider in place of that ritualized coffee.
Literally translated as sweet water, agua dulce is a quintessential Costa Rican breakfast drink made from two simple ingredients: water and sugar cane. However, the process of getting it onto the breakfast table is a little more involved.
Sugar cane planting and processing is a cornerstone of the Costa Rican agricultural economy. According to the Costa Rican Sugar League, during 2013 and 2014 (the last years a survey was taken) there were 7,830 sugar producers and 13 sugar mills, distributed in six regions of the country.
While technology has infinitely improved since sugar cane was first planted (around 6000 B.C. in New Guinea, then it was introduced to South America in the 18th century A.D.), traditionally, the harvesting process was quite tedious, as compared to today's mechanized technique.
Back then, sugar cane was collected using a machete. Workers removed excess fibers from the shoots and, in order to soften the stalks, they beat them by hand using wooden clubs. Each shoot was then run through a trapiche—a multi-platform press powered by oxen or manpower—in order to extract the maximum amount of cane juice. Stalks passed through about three times, and on the final run through the trapiche, the stalk was twisted by hand so as to squeeze out every last bit of juice.
Still today, after the juice has been extracted, it's boiled, evaporated, and molded to form small sugar cakes that look like packed brown sugar (though the taste is more concentrated than the bagged grocery store variety). Once cooled, these molds are called tapas or lids. In order to make agua dulce, one scrapes a little of the tapa into some boiling water—or, in some cases, milk—until it dissolves, resulting in a sweet, energizing drink that is still popular with Costa Rican farm laborers for the energy boost it offers.
While some some beeline for the nearest cup of coffee in the morning, many in China and Taiwan start their day with a steaming bowl of dou jiang. Part-soup and part-beverage (which way it leans depends heavily on preparation), dou jiang, in its simplest form, is warmed soymilk.
Soymilk's history spans back centuries; it originated shortly after the mill stone was invented in China during the early Han Dynasty. However, soymilk did not become widely consumed in China until the 1800s, when it was discovered that heat made it taste better and made it easier to digest.
Making soymilk is relatively simple. Coco Tran, owner of Louisville, Kentucky’s Heart & Soy—a restaurant that crafts its own soymilk and tofu in-house every week—explains, "First, we soak non-GMO soybeans overnight. Then, we have a machine that separates the soybean and it forms a milk. We boil it so that starch is removed and the only thing left is the milk."
It’s worth noting that the kind of soymilk sold in Asian countries (or from U.S.-based Asian markets) is different from American brands like Silk or Vitasoy. Those boxed varieties were designed to serve as milk substitutes, and are sugared and watered down to mimic the taste and texture of dairy milk, whereas fresh Asian soymilk has a more robust, unmanipulated soy flavor.
Once warmed, dou jiang is smooth and milky, with a strong soybean fragrance. It's usually sweetened, though savory versions exist with vinegar and chili oil as optional condiments.
Food writer Naomi Tomky lived in the "fruit paradise" that is Ecuador 11 years ago. During her time spent as a local, she had the opportunity to sample naranjilla juice, which she describes as "one of the most common" juices available. The name translates to sour orange or bitter orange, "but really it's more like a bitter tomato. It is generally served with a generous amount of sugar or syrup, which makes it palatable."
According to Fruits of Warm Climates author Julie Morton, the usually spineless naranjilla is believed to be indigenous and most abundant in Peru, Ecuador and southern Colombia. The varieties found in the rest of Colombia and in the central and northern Andes of Venezuela and interior mountain ranges of Costa Rica may vary from partly to very spiny. In Ecuador, 90 percent of commercial naranjilla cultivation is in a 15-mile valley region adjacent to hillsides of the Pastaza River, a tributary of the Amazon.
"The flesh, complete with seeds, may be squeezed out and added to ice cream mix, made into sauce for native dishes, or utilized in making pie and various other cooked desserts," Morton writes. "But the most popular use of the naranjilla is in the form of juice. For home preparation, the fruits are washed, the hairs are rubbed off, the fruits cut in half, the pulp squeezed into an electric blender and processed briefly; then the green juice is strained, sweetened, and served with ice cubes as a cool, foamy drink."
Another reason that the fruit is especially popular for juicing is because its skin, like that of a tomato, bruises easily. This, combined with the fact that naranjillas fare poorly in large-scale cultivation projects, contribute to their specific regional appeal as a breakfast juice, served in the same way as orange juice in the states.
Prior to the rise of tea and coffee, salep—a beverage made from the tubers of Turkish orchids—was the breakfast drink of choice in the Ottoman Empire; its popularity eventually spread throughout England and Germany where it was known as saloop.
During that time period, around the late 1300s, the drink's preparation required that salep powder be mixed with water until thickened, whereupon it would be sweetened, and then flavored with orange flower or rose water. The drink remained popular until it was reported that salep was a dependable remedy for venereal disease, and soon drinking it in public became shameful.
However, salep is still a popular coffee alternative in Turkey, where the orchid powder is blended with skim milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Yet, in the early 2000s, botanists living in Turkey began noticing a sharp decline in the country's orchid populations, and they realized that dondurma (the Turkish ice cream that is thickened with salep, and stretched like frozen taffy) was to blame.
It takes over 1000 dried orchids to produce 1 kilogram of salep powder, so in effort to preserve the plant, exporting salep was prohibited. For those desperate to try this drink in the States, it’s still possible to find salep powder from Greece, though not in any large amount.
Sarabba, a chai-like Indonesian breakfast drink that's seeped in the country’s spice-filled history, remains a favorite on tables even today.
During the early 16th century, European colonists become interested in Indonesia's Maluku Islands after discovering three new, distinct spices—nutmeg, mace, and clove—that, for a long time, could not be found elsewhere. Other spices like ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon were most likely introduced to the country by settlers from China and India early in Indonesia's history, and these ingredients became an integral part of the culture’s cuisine and economy. The spices—pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and sometimes cloves and anise—are featured in sarabba. The drink has a base of thick, sweet coconut milk and egg yolks, which are pulsed together and then warmed or chilled. Spices add a nutty, fragrant flavor. Palm sugar is optional, though the drink is typically sweet enough on its own.
Aside from its distinct flavor, locals love sarabba for its purported immunity and stamina building properties, which makes it a great get-up-and-go breakfast beverage, as well as a choice pick for graveyard-shift workers needing a boost to get through the night.
Yak Butter Tea
While Bulletproof Coffee has just recently caught on in the United States, tea fortified with butter—specifically yak butter—has been a mainstay breakfast beverage in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet for hundreds of years.
While historians are unclear as to specifically when people living in the Himalayas began supplementing their tea with yak butter, the thinking behind the concoction makes sense. Yaks are sturdy creatures who produce well even in the most challenging wintery conditions. Traditionally, a black brick tea—in which the leaves have been pressed together in a block post-fermentation—served as the beverage's base, however in the United States many substitutes exist.
According to Tibetan Sonam Curreri, an employee at SerendipiTea in Manhasset, New York, "I experimented with a bunch of different teas when I moved here. Pu-erh seems to work best," she explains. "Then for the yak butter, I just use normal cow butter."
To make butter tea at home, Curreri recommends boiling tea leaves, and then straining the water. Transfer the fresh tea to a mixing bowl, add butter and salt to taste, and blend with a hand mixer to achieve a smooth, creamy consistency.
"Some people who have never had it before say that it tastes a little like soup," Curreri says. "To me it tastes earthy and salty."