Chocolate is one of the most popular flavors in the world, regarded by millions as the ultimate indulgence in every form, be it a candy bar, hot chocolate, or part of a dish like chicken mole. The cocoa tree originates in the rainforests of the Americas, and its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, translates into “food of the gods”. Because of its unique aroma, people considered it a sacred substance and treated it as one.
Though the cocoa tree grows wild in the rainforest, ancient societies, starting with the Olmec around 1500 B.C., cultivated it. Later, the Maya and the Aztecs used it not only as food and drink but for trading and even for currency.
When the Spanish first arrived in the Americas, they came into contact with chocolate through the Aztecs. And the descendants of the Aztecs, the modern indigenous people living in and around Central Mexico still use chocolate as a daily staple. They drink or eat cocoa in different forms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It also plays a role in their ceremonies and rituals, including births, weddings, rites of passage, and funerals.
But nowhere else in Mexico is chocolate as prevalent as in Oaxaca City, where the rich aroma of fresh chocolate accompanies you everywhere you walk. Though they don’t grow cocoa trees here, Oaxaca is on an ancient trading route and has established itself as a center for chocolate use over the centuries.
Best Places To Try Oaxacan Chocolate
No matter where you are in Oaxaca, a chocolate shop is not far away, and more often than not, it offers a few varieties of hot chocolate. Keeping with ancient tradition, Oaxacans most often drink their chocolate either with water or milk. When you order, you need to specify with or without milk (con leche means “with milk” -- sin leche means “without milk”). They always add cinnamon, and sometimes almonds.
The varieties of hot chocolate are only one way to drink cocoa in Oaxaca. Another chocolate drink to try is champurrado, a warm, thick drink made with milk, cornflour, sugar, and cinnamon.
But the oldest chocolate drink specific to Oaxaca is tejate, made by indigenous Zapotec and Mixteca people following the traditional recipes from centuries ago. They use both cocoa and cocoa flowers, plus corn and ground seeds of the mamey fruit to make it. To find it, look for indigenous women wearing traditional clothing selling it from street stands. They scoop it out of a large clay bowl into smaller wooden decorated bowls. You’ll notice that the surface of the tejate seems to have a snowy foam. This is the cocoa flower.
Oaxacans also eat their chocolate, though not as we are used to it, like candy bars or baked in pastries. Instead, they add it to their main meals in the form of a thick savory sauce called mole. Oaxaca is famous for its mole sauces, so when you visit, you need to try a dish made with it. Every restaurant in town features a few dishes with mole sauce. You’ll find at least seven different varieties of this thick sauce made with over 20 ingredients, but only the black mole features chocolate.
If you are wondering where to sample some of the best Oaxacan chocolate (or mole), try the following spots:
Mayordomo Chocolate Shops
Mayordomo is the best-known and most popular chain of chocolate shops in Oaxaca, and you’ll find one of them on just about every corner, enticing you to go inside with the aroma of their fresh-made chocolate.
If you were wondering what cocoa beans look like, you’ll see them here, stored in large burlap bags at the entrance. Watch the chocolatiers grind these beans into a chocolate paste, adding unrefined sugar, cinnamon, and other ingredients to the mix, making the paste to the specifications of their customers. At the counter, try a few samples of different chocolate drinks or pieces of fresh chocolate paste that just came out of the grinding machine.
The larger Mayordomo stores also have a fast-food lunch counter, serving a few dishes topped with black mole sauce. If you want a larger selection of chocolate-based meals in a sit-down restaurant, you can also try Mayordomo’s full-fledged restaurant.
Casa Mayordomo Restaurante
You’ll find the Mayordomo Restaurant in the historic center of Oaxaca, on Macedonio Alcala. Although they offer a variety of traditional Oaxacan dishes, their focus is on chocolate; their black mole is the best I ever had. And for dessert, you must have a cup of fresh hot Majordomo chocolate.
Chocolate La Soledad
Chocolate Y Mole La Soledad has a similar setup to the Mayordomo stores, with the grinders, samples, a small cafe, and a store. You can find one on Mina Street in the center of town. Even if you had enough chocolate for the day and don’t need another sample, it’s worth walking into the store to see the intricate wood carvings on the counters and the walls.
Another great stop for hot chocolate where you can also watch the process of chocolate making is the Chocolate Gualeguetza on 20 Noviembre street off Mina Street.
Other Chocolate Shops In Oaxaca City
Other than the three stores where you can see the process of chocolate making, you have plenty of options to stop for a cup of hot chocolate or buy already-made chocolate products or a mole paste.
Besides being a chocolate shop, La Autentica Chocolateria (owned by a small cooperative), is also a small vegetarian restaurant that displays local artwork.
Texier is more like a traditional small pastry shop/cafe/chocolatier. Besides the usual chocolate drinks, you’ll find chocolate pastries, something you won’t see in the other, more traditional chocolate stores in town.
You’ll find several chocolate shops in the Mercado, the market just one block from the Zocalo. One worth stopping at is the small chocolate store/cafe El Rito. They also produce their own chocolate, working with local cocoa farmers from Oaxaca and neighboring Tabasco and Chiapas for the past ten years.
Taking Oaxacan Chocolate Home With You
If you are flying back home, the easiest way to take Oaxacan chocolate products home with you is to buy them prepackaged. You can buy different bars in any of the above-mentioned stores to melt and make your own delicious hot chocolate from, and mole sauce mixes either as a paste or powder. If you want to have your own mixture made, your best bet to bring it home is to pack it in a checked bag. If you travel with only a carry-on, stick to the prepackaged goods to avoid any problems with airport security. (They have a rule of allowing only commercially packaged food products.)
What Else Is There To Do In Oaxaca City?
Though best known for its chocolate, the center of Oaxaca City, officially known as Oaxaca de Juarez, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site worth a visit for its architecture and history. The center and heart of the city, the Zocalo, which is surrounded by colonial structures, is always busy, with dancers and musicians setting up shows there daily. Cathedrals, palaces, colorful buildings, and cobblestoned streets add to its charm. While at the Mercado, try some chapulines, or fried grasshoppers -- another Oaxacan specialty.
Oaxaca City is also important from an ancient historical perspective, being the gateway to Monte Alban, one of the most important pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico.
Captivated? Read up on why chocolate travel will tantalize more than your taste buds, and prepare to jet set accordingly!