Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink

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Photo by Alex Whitmore

During my sourcing trip to Oaxaca two weeks ago, I made a slight detour between visiting cacao farms to check out the town of San Andrés Huayapam. Each year, this small village about ten kilometers east-northeast of Oaxaca City hosts the Feria del Tejate, a celebration of that peculiar Oaxacan libation known as tejate (tay-HA-tay).

In this part of the world, the ancient, pre-Hispanic tradition of using stone mills in food production persists even today. Tejate sits squarely within this canon. Like its better know cousins taza de chocolate, champurrado, and horchata, tejate is made with freshly milled ingredients combined with water.

Artisans known as molineros operate community mills (molinos) where local folks can bring in just about anything and have it ground up into a paste. Everything from corn, coffee, herbs, and chilies to cacao, rice, salsa, and wheat can be ground there, usually in a mill dedicated to a specific foodstuff.

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Photo by Alex Whitmore

What's actually in a cup of tejate? Every tejatera has her own recipe (tejate is always made by women). But you'll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao--the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris), a plant that is completely unrelated to cacao (Theobroma cacao). Also known as flor de cacao or flor cacahuaxochitl, rosita de cacao is responsible for the perfumed flavor and rich froth of tejate.

To make tejate, the corn, rosita de cacao, mamey seed, cacao, and any other additions are ground together in a molino with a bit of water. The resulting paste forms a wet, viscous brown dough.

The tejatera adds water to the dough from as high as she can hold her hand, slowly at first and then more quickly, while the whole thing is endlessly kneaded. She stalwartly perseveres in kneading for more than twenty minutes until, as if by magic, a white curd-like foam begins to precipitate out of the now-thinned dough.

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Photo by Alex Whitmore

This reaction is as surprising and fun to watch as the cloudiness that appears from nowhere in Pernod when water is added. To order a cup of tejate, one specifies the level of sweetness (applied to the bottom of the cup as simple syrup). The tejatera then scoops up some of the brown liquid and tops it off with a dollop of the creamy, white topping.

The taste of tejate is something like a cross between lilac flowers and cocoa, with the texture of a tepid Wendy's Frosty. Which is to say that it's delicious, refreshing and surprisingly fortifying. Of all the ways cocoa beans are consumed, this is certainly one of the most traditional. Tejate can be found in the area immediately surrounding San Andrés Huayapam, and is just one of the many unique food experiences to be enjoyed in Oaxaca.