Sweet, Fruity, Boozy Ponche Is The Flavor Of Christmas
Show up at a Mexican household during the Christmas season and you'll likely be offered a hot mug of fruity, crimson-colored ponche to warm you up.
"It's a drink de apapacho," says Ramiro Arvizu, who co-owns La Casita Mexicana in Bell, "a drink of nostalgia for those who can't go back to their country."
Apapacho is a difficult word to translate. Dictionaries will tell you it means to clinch, cuddle, caress -- to lovingly embrace. For Arvizu, ponche is like a hug, in liquid form. "It takes me back to my childhood, to school, to posadas, to Christmas parties. It takes me back to my grandma," he says.
Known by many names, including te de frutas (fruit tea) and ponche navideño (Christmas punch), the drink is closely tied to the posadas, a nine-day celebration honoring the journey taken by Chuy's parents, Mary and Joseph, as they wandered from Nazareth to Bethlehem searched for lodging, or posada.
Ponche is traditionally served starting December 16, at the beginning of the posadas. Despite its ubiquity in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Carribean, the drink didn't originate in any of these countries.
The origin of ponche is difficult to track but the word probably came from punch. The common wisdom is that punch originated in India, where it was called "pãc," which translates to "five," referring to the drink's five fundamental ingredients -- palm wine, sugar, lemon, tea and water.
David Wondrich, drink historian and writer of the book Punch, has a different take.
He argues that the word probably comes from the puncheon barrels in which punch was stored. Punch was brought to Europe by way of the British East India Company during the 17th century and from there it spread through Europe. At some point, the Spanish brought punch to Mexico while colonizing the country but from there, the trail goes cold.
For the most part, people in Spain don't celebrate the posadas with ponche. Spain is home to a spirit called Ponche Caballero (a fruity, cinnamon-tinged brandy) but it doesn't explain why Mexicans took a liking to ponche or how they developed their own recipes for it.
One thing is for certain, ponche is a mezcla (mixture) of indigenous and European gastronomies. "It's a mix of the old world and the new world," says Los Angeles Times staff writer Gustavo Arellano, who's an authority on Mexican food. "Ponche today, traditional ponche, it's going to be a little bit of a mezcla, like everything in Mexico. Tejocotes are definitely from Mexico [while] apples weren't indiginous to the new world. Then you have alcohol, which came from from Spain because of distillation."
Regardless of its origins, ponche is a Christmastime staple throughout Latin America where the potential variations -- in its base (milk vs. water), its fruits, its spicing -- are infinite. While most ponches are a deep red, some ponches in South America and the Carribean are creamy and taste like eggnog's distant cousin.
In Mexico, recipes for ponche, as for so many other things, can differ from state to state. In Mexico City, it's a hot drink typically made with pineapple, prunes, oranges and limes. In Colima, on the country's west coast, it's served cold and can be made with water or milk. Most ponches have a few essential ingredients: jamaica (although some versions omit hibiscus), piloncillo (or another sweetener), aromatics (such as cinnamon and anise) and fruit, which is where you'll see the most variety.
All ponches are great in their own way. "It was the flavor of Christmas for us," Arvizu says.
One of the most common fruits in ponche is tejocote, a small, orange crab apple-like fruit, that couldn't be imported into the U.S. for many years because USDA officials were concerned it might harbor exotic insects "that could devastate American agriculture," according to the Los Angeles Times. Before the ban on importing tejocote was finally lifted, in 2015, it was one of the most commonly seized fruits by customs officials. Now, you can find it at almost any Latin American market.
Arvizu, whose family comes from Jalisco, makes ponche with tamarind, cinnamon, sugar cane, tejocotes, guava and guava tree leaves. That last ingredient was his grandma's secret. The leaves add an earthy taste and may have health benefits such as reducing blood sugar levels and boosting immunity. "It's the magic, I guess," Arvizu says. Guava leaves have made their way into the ponche at La Casita. It's a way for Arvizu to put his family's stamp on ponche while honoring his grandmother.
In Mexican households, families will often prepare two ponches, an alcohol-free version, for kids, and a boozy one, known as ponche con piquete. The choice of alcohol varies widely from region to region and from person to person. Rum and aguardiente (sugar cane alcohol) are the most common selections but some people opt for brandy, wine or tequila.
Already known as a soothing winter drink, "If [ponche] has a piquete, you'll be even warmer," Arvizu says.
Where To Find Ponche
Although it's common in Mexican households, ponche, especially, ponche con piquete, isn't widely available in Los Angeles. Guerrilla Tacos used to make a mulled jamaica, which was the closest you could get, but they've stopped serving it. If you want ponche in L.A., you've got three options -- two traditional and one modern.
La Casita Mexicana
For a brief period during the posadas, the 20-year-old Mexican restaurant sells ponche. They make it a day in advance so the flavors have time to get acquainted. First, they boil water with cinnamon. Then, they add jamaica, peeled tamarind, sugar and fruit. This year, La Casita started serving ponche on December 14.
4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell. 323-773-1898.
Go Get Em Tiger
For the month of December and only at its Music Center location, the specialty coffee chain offers a ponche that pays homage to Lupe, their "commissary hero." It's made with jamaica, cinnamon and pomegranate syrup then topped with an apple chip. This simple, soothing version hits the right notes. The pomegranate is a source of acidity and sweetness. It's too bad GGET doesn't offer ponche at any of its other locations because parking in this part of DTLA is brutal.
135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 323-886-7224.
The boba transplant from San Francisco offers a traditional ponche made with hibiscus, apple, guava, star anise and cinnamon sticks. They serve it hot or iced. The cold version tastes like a spiced agua fresca and the aromatics recall a Carribean sorrel drink. One of the benefits of getting ponche at Boba Guys is that you can control the sweetness. In home kitchens, ponche is often tooth-achingly sugary. Dial that down and you can appreciate the individual flavors in the drink.
Their ponche is missing only one thing, a husk of sugar cane for you to chew as you reflect on your year. Ponche navideño will be served until the end of winter (late March).
8820 Washington Blvd. #107, Culver City.
1670 Beverly Blvd., HiFi.
6460 E. Pacific Coast Hwy, Suite 120, Long Beach.
If all else fails, Northgate Market -- with more than 40 locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties -- has made it easy for customers to prepare ponche at home. They sell kits with all the ingredients you'll need. Cinnamon, hibiscus, guavas, tamarind and sugar cane.
If you prefer, you can also shop for the individual ingredients. Most Northgate Markets sell them by weight. Walking through the produce aisle, you can see bins of dried hibiscus flowers and tamarind pods, boxed tejocote and vacuum-sealed sugar cane, all strategically placed to remind you to raise a glass.