In markets and ferias of Oaxaca, Mexico, phalanxes of matrons in huipiles and checkered aprons stand at attention behind green glazed tubs of foaming tejate like a smiling and broad-bosomed kettledrum section.
Tejate is a drink with an illustrious history. It is championed in Oaxacan lore as refreshing, invigorating, medicinal, and aphrodisiacal. Once drunk by Zapotec kings; today, campesinos gird themselves for the weary day ahead with this cool and chocolatey concoction. To the unschooled eye, though, and those unfamiliar with the pick-me-up preferences of Zapotec royalty, tejate may look like sink water after a man shaves, or what one might imagine when thinking of the word “curd.”
Working from the philosophy that: “If people eat it, it must be good” (a philosophy of goofy optimism, which has, as you might imagine, on several occasions, not panned out. I’m thinking of ‘stinky tofu’, for instance, or, more tragic than nauseating, live baby octopi), nevertheless, in the spirit of reckless gobbling, I talked to several smiling women manning the tejate tubs to investigate the history and merits of this wildly popular Oaxacan beverage.
As it turns out: tejate is made of precisely toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, and the seeds and flowers of a fruit called mamey which has skin like a kiwi and the grainy orange flesh of a yam, but more chalky, and with a central seed the size of a large almond. The tejatera, the woman who makes tejate, toasts these ingredients perfectly each night before she uses them. Knowing how to do this is a skill passed from mother to daughter tejatera, they told me, and the cleanliness of the seeds and bowls is vital. Grease or fruit stuck on the mamey seeds will render the whole stew the wrong color, and the other tejeras will never let you forget it.
Having guarded cleanliness and toasted everything to a turn with Zen-like attention, in the morning, the tejatera grinds everything up on her metate, that invaluable chunk of basalt with three sturdy feet, with which every woman comes equipped as a wife. She then dollops what must be a greyish gravy into a pot, sloshes in cold water and ice, mixes it until a bubbly spume develops, looking to my untrained eye like foam on a stormy beach, the scum to be discarded from boiling chicken, or unhealthy beer. But, two million Oaxacans (and this is a Oaxaqueno libation, several Mexicans from D. F. with whom I spoke had never tried tejate, and thought it looked suspiciously rustic) can’t be wrong.
And it is rustic. Tejate is a staple at ferias and mercados capturing the romanticism and purity of an agricultural past, thatched roofed cottages, hay in the sun, and fields under a harvest moon. Traditionally, it is scooped up and proffered in hollowed, finely painted, gourd bowls, once painted only by the town folk of the Guerrero hills, now it is also swirled into opaque plastic Solo cups.
Also evolving, the drink itself has not always been the curdy refreshment we know today. It was once more like atole, a cinnamony breakfast gruel, and made with chile de arbol, men could carry wads of it in their breakfast sacks to the field. Now it’s wetter, and sweet rather than spicy.
Keeping in mind this long and compelling history, evolution, the sophisticated pallets of Zapotec kings, and promises of aphrodisiacal effects, I stepped up to the tejate pot at Oaxaca’s hip Conzatti market where everybody was gobbling this stuff, to ask for one para levar, por favor and took my place in a substantial line. I was behind a boy of about 12 in a tidy button-down. Clearly an aficionado, he took his tejate neat from a traditional and flamboyantly enameled gourd and stood with his mother lapping the creamy froth from the bowl, handing it back to the lady, and turning for his mother to wipe his chin; then, a tall sleek girl with gold sunglasses on her head and eyes like a deer took hers to go, biting at the foam as she swept away into the crowd; after her, two guffawing schoolgirls with braces on their teeth ordered theirs, and, walloping each other, sloshed their plastic cups and, shrieking, licked the chunks from their wrists.
My turn. From a little galvanized bucket, the tejatera scooped in an inch of sugar water of which you can have more or less; more is probably necessary since un-amended cacao is cruelly bitter. Then, swirling expertly and scraping the side of the tub for the proper liquid to foam ratio, my tejatera dolloped it all into my cup and plopped in a chunk of ice. I took a slurp. “How do you like it?” she asked. “Oh!” I said, “It’s good.” And it was. Cool and chocolatey. A pre-Hispanic Yoo Hoo. “You are surprised,” she said and all the tejateras laughed. But I was. Rather than a grainy spume, the froth was melting and creamy, the sweetness invigorating not cloying.
There is, in Spanish, a specific word, madrugada, for the crack of dawn between three and four in the morning when women all over Oaxaca get up to start the fire, pat the tortillas, and get the men and children ready for their long days. One can imagine a cool gourdful of tejate when you’re tired in the early hours and have a long time to go before it’s all over. That would be a pleasant way to begin.
Written by Liz Kirchner and Brian Parr
Photograph by Jorge Santiago
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