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Water for Chocolate

by Tiffany Nguyen

Tiffany is a 4th-year undergraduate student visiting Oaxaca from the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studies public and nonprofit management. She is delighted to get to write about Oaxaca and its wonderful traditions.

On the second day of En Vía’s Feria de Artesanas Emprendedoras, Isabel Lazo Chávez brings the tools of her daily work to Oaxaca de Juarez. A metate, her comal, an anafre. She has agreed to demonstrate how she makes chocolate, so we can see the magic happen.

Isabel begins the process by toasting cacao beans until they start popping and peeling themselves like popcorn. Pop! Pop! Pop! The beans rattle and hiss in the comal as Isabel tells the audience about her comedor in Teotitlán del Valle. In México, los comedores are less formal than los restaurantes. In the former, you find la comida de la casa, the food of the home; you don’t choose from a long list of options on a fancily printed menu. Instead, Isabel might bring you tamales or her renown mole negro con pollo. She makes foods that incorporate her chocolate ranging from mole to just plain chocolate bars to drinks like chocolate con leche. Given that she likes cooking, her favorite part of the En Vía tours she receives is when people love and enjoy her food.

Isabel explains to Eda her process of making chocolate. Audience members listen closely.
Isabel explains to Eda her process of making chocolate. Audience members listen closely. © Stéphanie Knibbe

Isabel buys the cacao beans from Chiapas in bulk, usually around 25 or 30 kilograms. She has to calculate the amounts she uses and purchases so as not to run out of beans before the next round of purchases. While she could buy it from other vendors closer to Teotitlán, the cost from this Chipas vendor is more affordable. The small comal she uses in her demonstration holds a little under a fourth of a kilogram.

She smiles and admits that she is accustomed to toasting beans in a much larger quantity, so stirring the mix in her smaller comal (which is now very fragrant) proves challenging. Normally, a woman toasting las semillas, the seeds would do so over a large fire; the comal would be held up by three bricks placed in a triangle around the flames. Although Isabel toasts kilos of cacao at a time in her home, she grinds the peeled beans bit by bit each day. Moliendo chocolate, grinding chocolate is so labor-intensive that doing otherwise, she would tire quickly. As Isabel roasts the cacao before us, the perfume of chocolate wafts toward the audience and fills patio of the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca with a divine fragrance.

I realized after her demonstration that, at least in the United States, people consume pounds and pounds of chocolate typically without ever touching the raw product in their life. But in Oaxaca for many, the way of life and food is different; those parts of life are also deeply intertwined. While not representing all of Oaxaca, several women work directly with the goods of the earth to produce what I as merely a visitor might buy, consume, and take home with me.

Finally, the cacao beans are thoroughly toasted. However, if we were to eat it as is right after toasting, the flavor would be bitter, she warns. The beans are too hot to touch for the moment, so Isabel first grinds la canela, the cinnamon that she will soon add to the chocolate. Isabel pours the toasted cacao into a dish to cool, then she readies the metate that she will use during the intensive grinding process.

Isabel helps a young volunteer use the metate.
Isabel helps a young volunteer use the metate. © Stéphanie Knibbe

The metate is the heart of the Mexican diet. It’s used to grind chiles, chocolate, corn: from it comes spice, mole, tortillas. A family might have three or four metates for separate purposes since the stone surface absorbs the flavor of what it grinds, Isabel explained. Another woman of En Vía, Luvia, had previously brought her metate used to grind cochinilla used in natural red dyes. Metates are also tied to the family: the metate Isabel uses is that of her mother-in-law, her suegra.

Her son and asistente Edgardo, runs to grab a hoodie that Isabel can place under her knees as she kneels on the tile of ICO’s floor. Before the advent of mass-produced masa de nixtamal or corn dough, women labored over the metate to make the dough of los tamales we see bagged in the open market tianguis. An audience member asks Isabel if she physically tires while moliendo chocolate, grinding chocolate. In response, Isabel tells a brief story: when she first began working with chocolate as a young girl, her wrists, her knees would be very sore at the end of the day. The whole area of her wrists and forearms tired because moliendo requires a specific twisting technique; it is not so easy as kneading dough with a rolling pin. But Isabel laughs as she answers to the contrary now; her knees have just become used to it!

But even with a small reed of canela, cinnamon, Isabel tirelessly twists and spins the roller against canela into the curve of the stone. She passes the cooled dish of cacao to some young volunteers to peel. Young children taking Spanish classes at the Institute run to form a circle of helpers; their small fingers remove the shells of the beans as the canela slowly becomes powder in Isabel’s metate until all that remains of the cacao is the edible portion and of the canela, a fine brown dust.

We taste the chocolate after she has added canela but before she has sprinkled in sugar. While the chocolate has a rich flavor, it’s amargo, very bitter, she warns. She tells us of a man from Chicago ordered a few kilos of plain chocolate sin azúcar, without sugar. He apparently enjoyed it so much, he has returned to Oaxaca multiple times to take more back home.

Isabel finishes her chocolate presentation with the final product of chocolate.
Isabel finishes her chocolate presentation with the final product of chocolate. © Stéphanie Knibbe

I’m surprised how many passes it requires to refine the chocolate satisfactorily. Spooning the chocolate back and forth before the roller, Isabel ensures its consistency will be smooth. But soon enough, the metate, which she warms with some small embers below, melts the chocolate slightly the right time to add a bagful of sugar. And so this is the chocolate I taste from home! Chocolate, I think, is a gift from the earth.

I am reminded of the previous day of the Feria, when a maker of tapetes—Luvia Bazán Ruíz from Teotitlán del Valle—explained her perspective on Mother Nature. The designs she creates in her tapetes frequently represent the environment, to which she emphasizes that she is indebted. From the earth, she said, she gets the materials to make her natural dyes and the lana she weaves into rugs. By using natural dyes, she does not contaminate the environment. For her, it’s imperative to care for nature, to return the favor it has offered her: the ability make a living and survive. Without the resources of the earth, where would her family be? What would her family do? And so I wonder to myself, if we did not have cacao, where would we be?

Luvia explains to Mica the significance of her tapetes.
Luvia explains to Mica the significance of her tapetes. © Steìphanie Knibbe

Por fin. With her bare hands, Isabel molds the final product into piezas of chocolate, the form of which she might sell at her comedor. Pat pat pat. She slices a small dome of chocolate smaller and smaller, placing pieces on a plate to pass around the crowd. Looking up from her focused work, she invites us to try them, and upon biting into a piece, I’m amazed. ¡Qué rico!

5 thoughts on “Water for Chocolate”

  1. Beautiful and well-written post! I wish I could have been there! Next time I visit Oaxaca, I will take the tour!

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