Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Hot chocolate like I've never had it before
Oaxaca is famous for its hot chocolate, even though there are no cacao trees here. They are all in Tabasco or Chiapas, two words which have very strong and non-chocolate connotations for Americans. But Oaxaca is where chocolate is made, where it’s mixed into sweet drinks and savory sauces.
Mexican hot chocolate is one of the few things I’d tried before coming to Oaxaca. I’d first gone ga-ga over the hot chocolate at the Guelaguetza restaurants in LA, and bought a big bag at $15 a pop which I slowly worked through during a cold New York winter. Living far from LA, I’d tried switching to Ibarra, the brand that’s widely available in U.S. supermarkets, but something about its flavor had jarred me, too different from my memories. But I’d felt lucky to already have my very mollina, the special Oaxacan kitchen utensil for mixing and frothing hot chocolate, gifted to me by Lina last winter.
So when our cooking teacher told us “chocolate con agua” would be our first class, I wasn’t thrilled. When we were going to start cooking?
Our first day of class, in addition to visiting the markets downtown, we stopped at Chocolate Mayordomo, a store run by one of the biggest chocolate brands in Mexico. It was set up to look like a factory, and they had big machines that were churning out chocolate, or mixing chocolate with sugar and nuts, and a long factory runway of rolling tubes, but it seemed more like a show for tourists than an actual mill. At one end were boxes of chocolate from the floor to the ceiling, all for sale, and at the other end was a little “chocolate bar,” where cold chocolate was for sale. They brought out samples to try and little dixie cups of cold chocolate, which made me instantly suspicious. Had we been brought here with the expectation we would buy souvenirs?
By Tuesday, when our cooking was supposed to start in earnest, I wasn’t expecting much. Why would we need two hours to learn how to make hot chocolate, something I’d made on my stove so many times?
Stupid know-it-all me. When I got there, Soledad, our teacher, instantly put me and the others to work sorting and cleaning the beans and dried corn kernels. They were going to soak and simmer on the stove for use the next day. She added lime to the corn, which she said was necessary for tortillas and tamales. We were going to make tortillas and tamales? Clearly, this woman believed in making food from scratch.
She also began passing out recipes for “champurrado,” described in parentheses as “atole de maiz mezclado con chocolate,” one of those parentheticals that provides little clarification. It’s easier to describe how it’s made than what it is. I’d tried “atole” before, but not “champurrado,” a very traditional drink for weddings and other celebrations.
We began with dried corn kernels that Soledad had already boiled for about 30 minutes. These corn kernels were big, fat, and more white than yellow. When they had cooled, she poured the corn with the water into a blender, adding more water when necessary. She asked two students to stretch a cheesecloth between them, and then push and strain the pureed corn liquid through, leaving a bucket of milky white liquid and a big ball of corn mush.
The atole went back on the stove, along with a big bar of Mayordomo chocolate. More cooking, and all for a drink. While that was boiling, Soledad began preparing “chocolate con agua.” Oaxaquenos, she explained, make hot chocolate with water, not milk.
Water, not milk! Suddenly, I realized I didn’t know at all what she was talking about. I’d never had “chocolate con agua,” only “chocolate con leche.”
Soledad put the traditional one-handled chocolate pitcher straight on the stovetop and got the water boiling. She then added two big bars of chocolate and started mixing and pushing at the chocolate chunks with the mollino. This one was smooth and dark from years of use, not like my pristine blond one. She began rolling the mollino between her hands, and all of us took a turn, frothing up the chocolate before pouring ourselves a cup.
To be honest, my fat-loving heart had been dubious about the Oaxacan style of hot chocolate. Could it be tan rico con agua? Could it be as meltingly rich as the Mexican hot chocolate I’d made at home?
It was better. It was sweet but strong and straight, like a cup of great coffee. It wasn’t just the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate. It was bracing, maybe even fortifying. We dipped pieces of “pan de yema,” an eggy challah-like bread, into our chocolate. It was better than any coffee and donuts I’d ever had.
The class wasn’t even over. We still had the champurrado to drink. “Atole” is another flavor that I think doesn’t fit into an American’s lexicon of flavors. It’s nutty, corny, almost a little gritty. It reminded me a little of the nutty Korean powdered drink my mother had fed me through hot summers. It was almost as good as the chocolate con agua.