Why you should care
The spicy cacahoatl has come a long way since Hernando Cortés tried it.
Hernando Cortés was supposed to smack his lips and revel in the taste. The frothy, fragrant bubbles must have glistened under the scorching sun as Aztec King Montezuma II in 1519 handed the Spanish explorer a piping hot drink. It was filled with a watery slurry of cacao nibs, chili powder and flowers. For Montezuma, this was heaven. Not quite for the Spaniard.
It was so bitter, Cortés nearly spat it out.
That’s how one legend goes, at least. Drifting through Mexico City, you’ll hear several accounts of what historian Matthew Restall calls “an encounter … one of the greatest meetings of human history — the moment when two empires, two great civilizations, were brought irreversibly together.” That moment when Montezuma met Cortés. What happened? Some think it was Cortés who violently ambushed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan — where Mexico City now sits — forced the king to surrender and conquered the Aztec Empire. Another account, though, wonders: How could it be? A few hundred Spanish against thousands of Aztecs? Impossible. Skeptics think fortune favored the Aztecs until smallpox did them in.
This is not chocolate milk. It’s way more interesting and ethereal.
The one thing Mexicans agree upon, however, is the reverence for this cup of steamy cacao broth: Montezuma was obsessed with cacahoatl (from which cacao is derived), which literally means “bitter water.”
“Growing up, we all learn the same thing in school — he drank it 50 times a day,” says Danny Reza, owner of La Rifa Chocolatería in Mexico City’s central neighborhood of Juaréz. Reza and I are sitting at an outdoor table at his café with fountains purring in the background. Staring up at us is a clay goblet with a foamy cacao mixture that comes very close to what Montezuma is rumored to have handed Cortés in an act of diplomacy during their 1519 encounter.
Except that here at La Rifa, Reza prepares a blend of high-grade cacao from Comalcalco, a municipality in Tabasco. Chunks of semisweet cacao get tossed into a pot. Then he adds two kinds of smoked, ground chilis in powdered form. Stir with a long wooden rod and done. The elixir is poured.
This is not chocolate milk. It’s way more interesting and ethereal. For all the bitterness I’m told to watch out for, the brew is not that aggressive. It’s more like gentle, fine sandpaper running over my tongue. And then there’s the quiet rush of the chilis that sneak up and take over the complex aromas of the cacao. The only thing that Montezuma might fuss over is the absence of flowers and the bit of sugar. Plus, he drank it from a gourd-cup called a jicama — not a clay vessel. Reza has it on the menu for 53 pesos. That’s a little under $3. Go ahead. Pretend you’re an emperor.
“This wasn’t a popular drink for just anyone during the Aztec Empire,” says Anais Martínez, a food critic and culinary guide at TheCuriousMexican.com. “It was special — for the elites only.” During that time, cacao beans were like gold — so valuable they were used as currency for transactions, and families kept high-quality beans as keepsakes. Drinking chocolate was an upper-class pastime.
Cacao in Mexico evolved since the clash of civilizations. The Spanish added sugar to offset the bitterness. In the Tabasco region, it’s become the popular drink it never used to be. In small towns there, Mexicans drink pozol, a blend of cacao and cornmeal. Similar perhaps to the wine competition between Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, towns in Tabasco compete and identify over who has the best pozol.
One has to wonder what might have happened if Cortés had actually enjoyed Montezuma’s favorite drink. Might they have bonded? Would the Americas look different? I don’t know. One thing is for sure, though. At La Rifa, you can blast back 500 years and taste a political encounter that changed the world.
Try Some: Montezuma’s Diplomatic Elixir
- Location: La Rifa is located at Dinamarca 47, nestled in the leafy Plaza Washington. It’s in the angular Juarez neighborhood just a few blocks south of Paseo de La Reforma. They also serve pan de muerto (bread of the dead).
- Cost: Prices for a giant cup of what Montezuma used to drink run just under $3. La Rifa has a wide variety of ways to consume chocolate. Have fun!
- Pro Tip: Sit outside, listen to the fountains that dot the plaza and soak up Mexico City. And if the day is winding down when you finish your cup, cross the street for a glass of wine or a taste of mezcal at Bar Cicatriz.