Origins: Tejate

Corn, cacao beans, rosita de cacao and the stone of the mamey fruit, don’t necessarily sound like the perfect elements for a refreshing beverage, however, the women of San Andrés Huayapam in Oaxaca, Mexico have been making a drink with these four endemic ingredients since Mesoamerican times. Tejate, or cu’uhb as it is known in Zapotec (the primary indigenous language of the central valley of Oaxaca) was believed to have been a drink of the gods, which was sent down for humans to enjoy. While all of my questions about which gods decided this beverage would be gifted down to humans were met with shrugs, the drink holds a kind of religious importance in the village.

Only the women from San Andrés Huayapam are allowed to make the drink, and the process, from toasting the cacao on a comal (hot plate), grinding all the ingredients using a traditional metate (a type of flat pestle and mortar), creating a thick dough or masa and then combining this mixture with water and stirring it using their full arm, takes a goddess-like strength. The technique and the, apparently secret, recipe is proudly passed down through the generations of women. I asked four different tejateras– as the women who make tejate are called- for the precise recipe for tejate and they either avoided the question or told me point blank that it was a secret that they weren’t permitted to share.

One of the reasons for keeping the recipe close to their chest is that women from outside of the village are starting to prepare the drink. This is something that the 140 women from San Andrés Huayapam who make tejate are very unhappy about. One woman, who has been making tejate since she was six year’s old and selling it in Oaxaca’s central market since she was 11, said it pained her to see “tejate being prepared so badly.” By all accounts, there is a subtlety to the flavor that these women work very hard to get right. “If you make your tejate well and with passion, people always come back for more,” the same tejatera, who asked not to be named, told me proudly.

One reason that tejate is so inextricably linked with the village of San Andres Huayapam is due to the rather mysterious ingredient, rosita de cacao, which adds so much of the unique flavor to the drink. Contrary to its name, rosita de cacao is not the flower of the cacao tree but rather a white aromatic flower from the Quararibea funebris tree that is botanically entirely unrelated to cacao. These trees, which are rather rare, are found in abundance throughout San Andres Huayapam, and depending on your mindset, this speaks either to the reason that tejate became such an important drink in Huayapam, or the reason that the gods chose the people of Huayapam to receive their recipe.  The Mexica (or Aztecs as they are more commonly known) also used this richly scented flower to flavor chocolate drinks.

The rosita de cacao is part of what makes the drink’s flavor so distinctive. A subtle hint of all the flavors (corn, cacao and rosita de cacao) is what I was told makes for a good tejate. The drink is both light while also being thick due to a froth generated by the ingredients’ fat that rises to the top of the drink, producing a texture not dissimilar to soft cottage cheese.  This texture puts many people off trying tejate, however, its popularity is growing. Every spring San Andrés Huayapam hosts a Tejate Festival with all the local tejateras making and selling their drinks. This year, the festival welcomed more than 15 thousand visitors, who bustled through the village’s narrow, cobbled streets to enjoy the beverage on its home soil. Tejate is served cold, with ice blocks added to the large bowls of the prepared drink.  Sugar water is added just before serving, the amount varying depending on the customer’s taste. Traditionally, the drink is served in a colorful gourd called a jicara often painted with vibrant birds and flowers. While some tejateras sell a version of tejate mixed with coconut, many of the women shrugged this off as a gimmick.

As the popularity of tejate grows, the women of San Andrés Huayapam are at once gaining from increased sales while also trying to hold on tight to the tradition that has held an important role in their village since Mesoamerican times. It is hard to predict what the future will bring but one thing is for sure; as long as the rosita de cacao continues to blossom, the women of San Andrés Huayapam will continue to make and enjoy tejate, the drink of the gods.