There's good reason why cacao is known as "the food of the gods".
This post originally appeared in Spanish on MUNCHIES MX.
Reducing cacao to chocolate limits one of the most versatile foods there is. Unprocessed cacao paste is thick, if it's mixed with cinnamon and vanilla it becomes a dessert, and if water is added it becomes a perfumed concoction. Then there's its health benefits: it is an antioxidant, and it contains minerals and vitamin C. It is also tasty. For good reason, the scientist Carl Linnaeus named it "Theobroma cacao" (the food of the gods), something that the ancient inhabitants of the American continent knew before the Spaniards arrived.
During the fourth Cacao and Chocolate Festival held at the National Museum of Popular Cultures in Mexico City, I met three culinary artisans who are rediscovering the various ways in which the ancient Mexicans consumed this amazing food.
Hortensia (Cholula, Puebla)
Hortensia nails the grinder to her clay pot. Her palms catch the wooden handle and begin to rub them vigorously. The grinder turns from side to side and stirs the cacao water with a touch of corn, sugar, and ice. Then the magic begins. The shake causes the natural fat of the cacao to rise as a foam. Soon the liquid is covered by a thick layer of brown bubbles.
The woman takes a jícara (a cup made from a gourd) and serves me a glass that looks like frappe. "It is a pre-Hispanic craft drink: drink of the gods", says Hortensia, who has been selling this drink for seven years in Tepozotlán.
The foam melts in your mouth, leaving a fresh feeling. It is inevitable to think of bitter chocolate. The mouth is left clean, without that greasy feeling left by poor quality chocolates. I need another.
It's a family recipe—a secret. Since her childhood, Hortensia's mother taught her how to prepare it: buy everything you need at the Supply Center and do the entire cocoa transformation process—toast it, clean it, grind it, mix it with corn and sugar, dissolve it in the water with ice and beat it all day.
"What's the secret to making so much foam?" I ask.
"The secret is in the grinder," says Hortensia, still beating. "You have to beat all day."
"You must have a good arm," I tease.
"Well, touch it." She exposes her right arm so I can touch it. Yes. Hortensia is a woman with arms strengthened by cacao.
Leticia Ruíz (San Andrés Huayapam, Oaxaca)
Leticia loses her seriousness every time she talks about tejate, the refreshing drink that her parents passed down to her, and a smile illuminates her face.
"It is what we do in our community; it is the pillar of the economy. We learned by necessity, but it is also an art, a very wonderful thing," she says to me while still stirring the refreshing concoction made with corn, cacao, mamey almond, and cacao flower, which she and all the people who prepare tejate call "rosita".
The Zapotec and Mixtec women of San Andrés Huayapam, the people who invented the drink thousands of years ago, prostrate themselves in the markets of Oaxaca with large tubs or earthenware pots containing this lumpy liquid. Leticia no longer sells in these supply centers, but in the locale of Santa Maria Hornos, very near the center of Oaxaca. This new generation of women from San Andres Huayapam have surpassed their ancestors, since they are trying other ways to consume the tejate: in cookies, cake, ice, powder and nicuatole palettes (a traditional Oaxacan dessert similar to gelatin).
"Preparing tejate is an art," says Leticia. Not only must we know the exact point to cook the corn and to roast the rest of the ingredients; you also have to mix the dough with your hands, and once you add the ice water you must beat it constantly with a gourd of huaje. It is not gratuitous that Leticia and her compatriots have strong and well-formed arms.
She takes a glass and serves a little sugar syrup that is already prepared. Then she adds the tejate. This is how the drink is sweetened, to the taste of the customer. She hands me the glass and I drink it. It's refreshing, not so sweet even though the woman filled the glass to just under half with syrup. It is light and in the first sip impregnates the mouth with corn and cacao. After another drink, the mamey feels very light. It is necessary to take a big and generous gulp to detect the flavors that the tejate encloses.
Fernando Rodríguez (San Juan Teotihuacán, State of México)
Don Fernando tries to reproduce the cacao beverages prepared in the old Tlatelolco market, at the height of the Mexican empire.
"With the conquest, all those recipes were destroyed. They have been rescued through the Codex, which is nothing other than interviewing other people about how they made those drinks" he tells me. "And from there we have recovered some of them. They only tell us what spices, what herbs, what seeds, not the recipes."
He started working with cacao eight years ago. In his bookstore and cafeteria, in San Juan Teotihuacán, he began to read texts that chronicled life in ancient Mexico. Books like the Popol Vuh or the Florentine Codex—written between 1540 and 1585—allowed him to get closer to cacao. Then the bookshop and the cafeteria ceased to exist. Now his efforts are directed via his cacao drinks.
"About six or eight years ago, there was no iconography about cacao, so in Teotihuacán we began our studies to see how Teotihuacans drank cacao." Little by little Don Fernando began to mix the paste with other herbs. But he does not do this without first consulting traditional Teotihuacán doctors, who give him elements about the properties of the plant and advise about whether it will cause a reaction beyond improving the taste once it is mixed with the cocoa.
"We do not tell people to drink because it will help them for this or that. We simply sell it for its good taste, but we also contribute something. People do not know, but it helps."
The first drink that is reproduced is the "Atlaquetzali", a water that must have been very exclusive or at least very appreciated for its flavor, since its name means "precious water". It is a combination of magnolia flower petals, holy leaf, pepper, and chili. It feels spicy; the pepper and the chili are prominent but noninvasive.
Don Fernando, who has skin tanned by the sun and a wide-brimmed hat that he rarely takes off, gets me to try another one of his drinks: "Quetzalpapalotl". It's sweet with a subtle taste of ginger, cinnamon, and rosemary perfume. Although this mixture is not pre-Hispanic, as the cinnamon and ginger have Asian origin, it conserves the flavor of Mexico.
"Let me tell you that this is a cough medicine. All I did was add the cacao. And it's extraordinary." Then he offered me another called "Tlexóchitl", the flower of fire, made with damiana, mint, and cacao. It is fresh but not piercing. In a hot place it would be a relief, and it is a remedy for an upset stomach.The last drink I try is prepared with cacao, oats, amaranth, and corn. It is called "Seeds of Life", a fitting name for a drink that brings together elements that have practically forged civilizations throughout human history.
"We are about to release 'pozol de tres milpas.' The Maya do it with only one corn. Here it would be with white corn, red corn and blue corn. It's going to be in the Teotihuacan style", he says with a smile. I'm sure he read my mind. "Because both Teotihuacan and Mexica were eccentric, and I think if they still existed they would do it like this."