By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D
It’s hard to imagine any recipe that can remain unchanged, passed on from generation to generation without adulteration, for thousands of years. But walk through any marketplace in the central valleys of Oaxaca, try a bowlful of frothy tejate, and you’ll be enjoying the same drink ceremonially imbibed by Aztec rulers and Zapotec royalty in southern Mexico, long before the arrival of the Spanish.
Tejate is a refreshing, corn and cacao based beverage made with a surprising array of unusual ingredients, all native to southern Mexico. Even most of Oaxaca’s famed moles cannot boast as pure a heritage, with many of their constituent herbs, spices and other flavorings having been introduced to Mexico during the conquest.
The telltale sign of tejate is seeing a woman standing behind a table on the street or in the market, ladling out of a large, green glazed pottery bowl filled with a beige, foamy liquid. At first glance it appears to be spent shaving water. But the smiles of contentment on the faces of passersby who stop, buy, and sip from a half jícara (gourd), suggest something quite different.
Tejate is prepared by only women. In order to make enough tejate for a full day’s sale in a typical weekly Oaxacan market, the tejatera ideally awakens at 3 – 4 a.m. to begin the ritualistic process. Roasted cacao beans, seeds from the tropical mamey fruit, and the dried flower of an aromatic bush (Quararibea funebris, with its maple-like aroma), are toasted on a comal over an open flame, then set aside. Next, either peanuts or pecans (depending on the season) are similarly prepared. Finally raw corn kernels are washed, then boiled in a large cauldron of water containing powdered lime mineral and ash. Yes, ash left over from cooking meals or baking pottery.
These days, for commercial tejate production, the corn and the cacao are then taken to a mill for grinding. The mixtures are kept separate, however, ready to be later ground together by hand on a stone metate. For smaller quantities, both today and before the era of the electric mill, women would finely crush all ingredients using the metate exclusively.
Social scientists and archaeologists have written about the evidence of the early origins of the ingredients used to make tejate. We know that corn dates to more than 10,000 years ago in Mexico. Cacao comes from the state of Chiapas, south of Oaxaca. Research has revealed that there were trade routes between Chiapas and Oaxaca, dating as far back as 4,000 years. Residue from clay pots dating back about 2,500 years confirms that the Zapotec natives of Oaxaca were cooking with cacao. Some of the other ingredients likely originated further south, but what we do know is that before the arrival of the Spanish, mamey, the aromatic bush, and nuts had arrived in Oaxaca, over the course of millennia. The most compelling evidence of the production of tejate itself, and its customary imbibing by royalty, comes from ancient painted clay vessels discovered by investigators.
The “Princeton Vase” has been dated to about 1,300 years ago. It is ornately decorated with a presumed cacao based beverage being poured from an outstretched arm into a container. The dress of the indigenous peoples depicted confirms that this was a drink for royalty or the gods.
Today’s native women who prepare tejate are far from of significant means or godly. But they nevertheless garner the greatest of respect from their customers who recognize the labor and skill which goes into making tejate. Day in and day out these tejateras can be seen in marketplaces, just as their ancestors before them, holding a receptacle stretched out at arm’s length high above their heads, allowing the liquid to slowly and deliberately return to the oversized clay vessel below, creating frothy tejate. If there is insufficient foam, the beverage has not been made properly.
After returning from the mill, the peanuts or pecans are ground on the metate. The milled corn is usually still warm. It must be set aside and left to cool sufficiently before continuing. Then the three mixtures (nuts, cacao and corn) are blended together, once again using the grinding stone. It’s usually still dark out. If only one woman is preparing the masa (dough), even after attending at the mill the subsequent hand grinding still takes 2 – 3 hours of continuous hard work. Some women still use large, smooth river rocks as their metates, inherited from their mothers and grandmothers, while most now buy the three-legged commercial type in the markets. The mixture must be tested to ensure that it will create ample froth when aerated with the addition of water. A small amount is tested. If it generates sufficient spume, it’s a success. If not, the most common solution is to grind together a further amount of the cacao mixture with the rest. The oils from the cacao constitute the foam.
At about 9 a.m. the tejateras disembark from collectivos which have brought them from their villages, to towns with weekly marketplaces or to daily city stalls. They often tote the several kilos of masa on their backs, ready to transform into tejate. At their designated market spots they gradually add water to the masa to turn it into a thick liquid, by slowly blending, both arms submerged elbow deep. Then the final step, creating the froth, and a successful tejate. Same ingredients, same technique, and same refreshing, nutty flavor as was produced by their Zapotec forebears thousands of years ago.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (www.oaxacadream.com) with his wife Arlene. Alvin has been known to take visitors to Oaxaca out into the villages at 3 a.m. to show them, first hand, how tejate is made. A photographic essay of the process is found here: