Like Water for Chocolate

In Mexico's Oaxaca region, every chocolate sip comes with bitter-sweet strands of pre-Hispanic history
Cacao almost takes the position of a staple food here
Cacao almost takes the position of a staple food here

The mountain town of Capulalpam in Oaxaca&rsquos Sierra Ju&aacuterez is the sort of place forever doomed to being described as &lsquosleepy&rsquo. But when I got there, it seemed to have just woken up, if somewhat reluctantly. In the town square set amid steep roads and a view that trailed off into mist, stalls run by housewives offered tostadas and quesadillas with unpractised charm. Indigenous Americans had trekked in with wooden toys and handicrafts to sell.

A couple of obvious outsiders were peddling their brand of mezcal, whose stocks seemed to be depleting solely through the downing of free samples. A pianist from the town had returned home and was playing for the proud applause of a small, scattered audience, blowing on his fingers between pieces to warm them against the crisp mountain cold. A brass band of local school children practised well into the slightly discordant night. Protesters had set up a somewhat cheerful stall against the depredations of mining companies and were luring people to listen to them with the promise of mezcal.

Asking around, I learnt that all this activity was because there were only a couple of days to go for Capulalpam&rsquos annual fiesta. The whole village would go on a procession to the church through the town in the evening holding large cut-outs of flowers, with dancers twirling poles with enormous balls of fluffed coloured paper at their ends. At 10 pm would begin what is called the calenda nocturna &ndash or what one old man said was la calenda de los borrachos, the night of the drunkards. The procession would go through the town sampling mezcal and food at different houses through the night. (Even the town administration had officials handing out beers and drinks to passersby, I discovered.)

My room at a home-stay named Posada Mirador was next to the kitchen. For three days, half a dozen women from the extended family roasted fragrantly, pounded and ground on their molcajetes and metates, mixed and reduced on an ever-burning flame. They were making mole &mdash a sauce usually served with chicken and rice, and one of the specialities of the region &mdash for the night of the fiesta. As I passed in and out, I got to examine or sample many of the ingredients nuts, chilli, spices - and, to my great surprise, chocolate. They were using chocolate as, essentially, masala.

Uses of a substance are most varied near the place of its origin, and the cacao plant is from around here. Earlier inhabitants of these parts, the Aztecs, believed that the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, stole the cacao plant from Paradise and rode down to earth on a beam of light from a morning star. It was food fit for the gods, and therefore, also for priests, royalty and sacrificial victims. In an even earlier time, Mayans and Olmecs had been known to use cacao, and there are signs of chocolate having been a part of food here nearly 4,000 years ago. But it was only after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in the 16th century that anyone outside the Americas got to taste chocolate.

The first Spaniards to visit the grand city of Tenochtitlan &mdash which was destroyed and rebuilt into Mexico City, the capital of &lsquoNew Spain&rsquo &mdash noted the emperor Moctezuma II continually consuming from a goblet with a spoon a thick spiced foam that was made of beaten cacao and called cacahuatl or xocolatl (words from the Nahuatl language that probably gave us &lsquochocolate&rsquo). Moctezuma was believed to have taken up to 50 cups of the stuff a day (and conspicuously, just before repairing to his 4,000-strong harem, which suggested that chocolate was an aphrodisiac).

In Oaxaca, where cacao almost takes the position of a staple food, chocolate is still consumed in some of those ways. Cacao beans and pulp are sold in the markets. Slabs of dry chocolate are sold as a cooking ingredient. Hardened mounds with vanilla, cinnamon and sugar are used as drinking chocolate. Champurrado, a thick drink made of cornflour, chocolate and spices, is served with churros and tamales.

Quetzalcoatl was believed to have specially taught women how to process cacao, and even today women sell tejate from tubs of what look like dishwater. It is, in fact, made of cacao, carefully roasted corn, cinnamon, water, flowers and seeds of the mamey fruit. Traditionally the tejatera mixed the ingredients and worked up a foam with her arm elbow-deep in the tub (though most of them now use something that looks like a buttermilk churn). The tejate &mdash creamy froth with a liquid base &mdash is served in hand-painted bowls fashioned from gourds, and sounds suspiciously close to what Moctezuma must have been having when the Spanish showed up.

Mexicans must be the most insouciant people in the world when it comes to matters related to death, no doubt owing to the world-view of their Aztec forebears. On the Day of the Dead, they gather around graves of beloved ones in celebration they offer to the dead things they liked in this world. So, among other things, one can see beer cans and cigarette packets placed on graves next to lit candles. Children look forward to skull-shaped candy that gets handed out around this time.

It was for the Day of the Dead that a Mexican friend gave me a skull made of milk chocolate. In many ways that is a perfect symbol for Mexico&rsquos history. The pre-Hispanic people used no milk or sugar until the colonisers introduced them. Chocolate was made in water, flavoured with vanilla and chilli (and detested by westerners until they realised that added milk and sugar was more to their taste. One early European taster called chocolate &ldquofit more for pigs than for men&rdquo.)  And though chocolate in Mexico still survives in older forms, today it is more often taken with sugar and milk, gifts of the coloniser. (When the first conquistadors came with their muskets and horses, the story goes that Moctezuma believed it was Quetzalcoatl come again.)  The people too are mostly mixed now, their skin having lightened from what the chocolate hue of another time.

One of those evenings in Capulalpam, dinner was bread eaten with a cup of chocolate made in water. The table was an old wooden one, rich with marks and calluses. The scene might have passed for pre-Hispanic if not for the noisy machine in front of us into which the more impatient housewives threw in their roasted mole ingredients to be ground. Sitting nearby was an old man visiting for the fiesta. He had had too many mezcals and he sang to a man nearby with slurred, swaying intensity &ldquoAmorcito coraz&oacuten, yo tengo tentaci&oacuten de un beso. Little darling, I have the temptation of a kiss.&rdquo

Maudlin, melodramatic drunks can be found anywhere in the world, but in Mexico they seem to possess a burning melancholy that is at once touching and comic to behold. It has been said that a party in Mexico is not considered a success until grown men are sobbing on one another&rsquos shoulders. Which seems strange for a country with such a pervasive culture of machismo, but this weeping is all right because &mdash as the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto has suggested &mdash it is not for themselves that they cry. They cry for Mexico and all that has happened to it. Among other things, they cry for that milk-chocolate skull.

I had chocolate with water only that once. Perhaps I&rsquom too tepid for it there&rsquos an expression used in Mexico to describe a person who is seething inside como agua para chocolate, like water for chocolate, referring to the boiling water required to melt chocolate. The few times I made myself chocolate from those dry cakes of chocolate, sugar and cinnamon, I used milk. And, like Moctezuma, a spoon to stir the sediment that settled all too quickly. My chocolate would go down like my experience of Mexico &mdash warm and exhilarating, rich and bitter-sweet, gritty and catching in my throat.

Outlook Traveller