Why you should care
Because you’ll feel elite drinking this $1 cup of chocolate.
I’m back from Mexico City. What a wonderful trip! Now, as an unfortunate victim of food poisoning, I’m upchucking. Without a lick of water in a day, all I want is to hydrate … with a steaming cup of espuma de cacao.
Refreshing and light, espuma de cacao — a chocolate drink with a cornmeal-and-water base — stands out like a sore thumb amid Mexico City’s market shops featuring scarves, honey, wool jackets and jewelry. Scooped with a bowl directly into a cup, it’s equal parts foam and liquid. In the Coyoacán district (home to the Frida Kahlo Museum), a cup of espuma de cacao will run you about a dollar; it can also be found in many markets in Oaxaca.
Espuma de cacao is made in a bowl as wide as my arm that looks like a witch’s cauldron.
What does it taste like? Think of it as “grown-up hot cocoa,” says Mexico City food writer Cristina Alonso, but lighter, cooler, foamier and not as sweet as regular cocoa. The visual might be even better than the taste. Espuma de cacao is made in a bowl as wide as my arm that looks like a witch’s cauldron. A woman with neatly pulled-back hair whisks and works the bowl’s contents with a wooden pestle. The end result: inches of seductive, khaki-colored foam.
Mexicans have been enjoying the drink of the gods — as it’s advertised at one market — for ages. In 2000, a study showed chocolate whisking, or beating chocolate to make froth, was represented linguistically in Nahuatl. Because of the rarity of chocolate, espuma de cacao was probably reserved for those elite with rank and titles. (Remember, the ancient drink now costs a buck a cup.) Years ago, to make the foam, women would pour the chocolate from one thin jar to another from a considerable height — aerating the drink in a waterfall of chocolate.
But when heading out to try some espuma de cacao, be warned: “Not everyone knows how to make a good cup,” says Alonso. She advises finding a “trustworthy place to drink it.” Her favorite spots are in Oaxaca, where breakfast at the market means a big bowl of steaming chocolate, and warm bread to dunk in it. And pay attention to the the foam; it’s akin to the foam on cappuccinos, explains history professor at University of Toronto Jeffrey Pilcher — and it says something about you: “If you don’t get foam, they don’t like you,” whereas an honored guest will receive lots and lots of foam. “Foam means you’re special,” Pilcher says. “It’s the good stuff, the top shelf.”
Mesoamerican cultures saw spiritual meaning in the presence of foam on the surface of chocolate drinks, according to a feature by scholars at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2014. And since the foam is the most delicious part of espuma de cacao, we tend to agree.