It is often agreed by gastronomy experts that the three ingredients that make the main pillars of Oaxacan cuisine are chocolate, corn and chiles. In Oaxaca, chocolate is more than history. It signifies the binding of a pueblo to its roots and that the divine (sacred) purifies, gives new force to, and celebrates life. The Zapotecs, or people of Oaxaca believed strongly in a life force called pé, which translated means "wind, breath, spirit." Pé created life and movement for man and the things surrounding him. The Zapotecs believe this force shook the earth during an earthquake, created lightning in the heavens, moved the clouds, caused the beating of the heart, and formed the foam in the chocolate served in a gourd.
This may explain why, during the pre-Hispanic period, chocolate was a drink reserved for the nobles, who themselves only drank it on special occasions. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, chocolate ceased to be a drink exclusive to the nobles, but it commanded a very high price. Nevertheless , over time, it became so popular that even the ancients saw in it one of the causes of an epidemic that decimated the population. It was said that chocolate took away the appetite and all desire to work, and caused the onset of incurable diseases.
The indigenous products most demanded by the Spaniards were gold, silver, cochineal (a scale insect from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived), and cacao. The Spaniards readily embraced the use of the latter, accepting it as money, tribute, medicine, or food.
Early in the evangelization of Oaxaca the Dominican friars desacralized the collection of cacao pods and accepted them as a source of energy and a remedy for kidney troubles, pleurisy, stomach problems, sores, and sunstroke.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, the drinking of chocolate was habitual among the clergy, but there were those who criticized the practice of indulgence on this drink because they believed it should be used solely as a remedy. A friar from Sierra Norte named Fray Jordán de Santa Catarina, was against this "abuse" of chocolate, maintaining that the devil had perverted this "medicine" by the sinful addition of sugar and by drinking it at all hours of the day.
In Oaxaca, specifically in Santo Domingo, Santa Rosa, and Santo Tomás de Aquino there was no lack of chocolate in the fiestas, during which chocolate was enjoyed with torteras de pasta, soletas (ladyfingers), bizcochos (a type of yeast bread), pastelones (cakes), and flowers and figures made of pastry.
By the early seventeenth century, this slightly bitter drink of chocolate dissolved in hot water or milk and sweetened with with raw sugar, vanilla and cinnamon spread across the world. This hot chocolate, more suited to Spanish palates, was of course an adaptation of the indigenous Oaxacan pre-Hispanic drink that was drunk cold. The cacao was mixed with ground maize, or masa, diluted with water, and often sweetened with honey. It was also frequently flavored with with ground chile, herbs, or seeds like those of achiote and pepitas de calabaza (pumpkin seeds, which added different tones of purple, orange, black and even white.
In the first decades of the seventeenth century, while hot chocolate was spread and praised throughout the world, the indigenous people of Oaxaca continued to prepare it in their unique ways. For instance, in Atlatluaca and Malinaltepec, the cacao beans were ground with masa (maize dough), and drunk from tecomates ( a type of gourd), whereas in La Chinantla, the ground pit of the mamey fruit (pouteria sapota) was added to the masa.
Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao tree that grows in tropical climates. It is one of Mexico's many gifts to the world. Today, it is mostly cultivated in the gulf state of Tabasco. The region has been cultivating the exotic tree for over three thousand years, since Olmec times. In later centuries it became prominent among the Maya in south-eastern Mexico and the Aztecs in central Mexico.
As a superfood, it is considered one of the most powerful health-enhancing foods on the planet. Chocolate in its purest form contains flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Dark chocolate lowers blood pressure and cholesterol through the production of nitric oxide. In addition, chocolate stimulates endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure, it contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. It contains caffeine and other substances which act as mild stimulants.
Even today, in many indigenous communities of Oaxaca, drinking chocolate signifies the honoring of life, being at one with family, neighbors, the community, and above all with God, the patron saint of the church and the dead. That is why, perhaps without being aware of this, Oaxacans always serve chocolate, prepared with water, at their celebrations, wakes, and novenas (novenas are invocations; special prayers said in specific time frames and requesting particular favors.) The presence or absence of foam on the chocolate is important and signifies the type of occasion at which it is being served. For fiestas and reunions of the community, the thick and delicious foam on the chocolate atole signifies happiness, brotherhood and hope. At wakes, sorrow is momentary, for in Oaxaca and all of Mexico there is no life without a fiesta, and there is no fiesta without chocolate.
Written by Leticia Alaniz
Fray Eugenio Martin Torres Torres
Diana Kennedy: Oaxaca al Gusto an Infinite Gastronomy