Cover image : atole street vendor
atole (Spanish) from atolli : a beverage made from finely ground maize, mixed with water.
“a gruel made of maize, which they call atolli . . . agreeable, harmless, and provides a pleasant and healthy food . . . for those suffering from a hot, dry fever; it calms the chest, is very nutritious, strengthens and fattens the emaciated, and restores lost strength.”
The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández, ed. Simon Varey, transl. Rafael Chabrán, Cynthia L. Chamberlin, and Simon Varey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000)
Most atole is made by diluting masa in water, flavouring and sweetening it and then cooking it so that it thickens (to ones personal preference – some like it thinner, some like it thicker). Other ingredients such as blended fruits, chocolate, nuts, amaranth or even pumpkin are added to atole to sweeten it, boost its flavour and add to its nutritional profile. Generally speaking atole has a “smooth” consistency.
Atole de grano is not like other atoles. The main difference is that atole is normally a smooth liquid (regardless of its viscosity) whilst atole de grano (grain atole) is “grainy” and will either have whole corn kernels in it or kernels that have been roughly ground so as to have some texture in the finished dish (or a combination of the two is used – roughly ground and whole). This atole is usually described as being a savoury drink – although there are many recipes which have been sweetened – and it is often described as being very near a form of pozole (1).
- pozole (or posole) is a pre-Columbian dish from Mesoamerica. The dish had several ritual and celebratory functions and has been linked to cannibalism (this will be explored in a future Post). The corn used in it is called cacahuazintle and is an heirloom/landrace variety of white dent corn. When nixtamalized it bursts open like a flower and a type of light foam is created. Around 16 species of landrace corn are used to produce these “flowered grains” for pozole (Vazquez-Carillo etal 2013) (Vazquez-Carillo etal 2014). The word pozole is said to come from the Nahuatl pozolli which means “foam”. In the U.S. of A. it is known as hominy. The main difference between atole de grano and pozole is that atole is thickened with masa made from the ground, nixtamalized cacahuazintle kernels whilst in pozole the kernels are left whole (and the dish is soupier as a result). I have included a recipe for pozole (verde of course) at the bottom of this Post.
I do not wish to offend the purists, and this may start a fight but “A variety of this dish is called chileatole”. Same same but different.
…..and like many foods in México it is celebrated.
For this recipe I have compared two sites https://www.comidasmexicanas.org/2016/11/receta-de-atole-de-grano.html (recipe noted in italics) and https://patzcuaro.info/atole-de-grano/ so that I can demonstrate the same recipe as explained by two different cooks. My notes are in BOLD.
Atole de Grano
- Fresh, tender corn, (Elotes tiernos, los necesarios) – as needed.
- 3 bunches of anicillo or field anise (substitute with fennel fronds and boost the anise flavour by adding a star anise to the cooking broth) (I have also seen fresh epazote used instead of the anise – this would change the flavour profile of the dish somewhat)
- Corn dough (nixtamalised masa – as needed)
- 4 tablespoons of flour*
- 2 serrano peppers
- 2½ litres of water
- 250 grams of sugar – this is a sweetened variety apparently
*this is an unusual ingredient (to me). Both recipes contained the exact same ingredients bar one. Both contained Masa de maíz, la necesaria (corn masa, as needed) which is the usual thickening agent for an atole. The patzcuaro.info recipe contained 4 cucharadas de harina which is later mixed into 1/2 cup of cold water and added to the dish. If it is indeed harina de trigo (wheat flour) then it is (in my mind) not necessary. It smacks to me of the French method of thickening sauces with beurre manié or a paste made from flour and butter which is whisked into liquids to thicken them (in a manner similar to thickening a sauce with cornflour – which is usually made from wheat where I come from)
- Soak the corn for two hours, shell the ears and reserve
First we will take our basic ingredient, the corn, we will put them to soak for two hours, so that they soften and, later, we will proceed to shelling them.
For both of these translations it appears that dried corn on the cob is used as it requires soaking and the ears need to be shelled prior to cooking. The word used in one recipe (but oddly enough not the other) is “mazorca”. Now mazorca can refer to either fresh or dried corn (which is still “on the cob”) but typically these recipes use dried corn in the process. Sweet corn is eaten before the plant reaches a certain stage of maturity, once it goes beyond a certain point it is dried for storage. Nixtamalisation takes this dried corn and produces a highly nutritious foodstuff from it. See Post Nixtamal for more on this.
Mazorca comes from the Hispanic Arabic masúrqa or maṣúrqa (ma/uṣrqah), this from the Arabic māsūrah, which in turn comes from the Persian māsure (tube used as a coil – a weavers reel). This word is used interchangeably but I have come across reference that mazorca (which does mean corn on the cob) applies to the cob being dried and the word “elote” refers to fresh corn on the cob (what I know as sweetcorn). This is the elote you might find at a street food stall or cut off the cob and served in a cup as esquites.
- In a pot, boil water, add salt and when it boils slowly add the corn, very carefully so that the hot water does not splash on you.
Then, we will proceed to put water to boil in a pot, add salt and, when it boils, we will add the corn with care to avoid accidents, such as small burns from the drops of hot water.
Pretty straight forward. Standard kitchen safety warning about boiling water.
- Cook over medium heat until the corn kernels are soft. Must move constantly to avoid sticking
We are going to cook over medium heat until the corn kernels are at their point, this means, and soft. While the above is on the fire, we will take a few millilitres of the water from our corn which, already mixed with the other ingredients, will be blended with the anise to blend the flavours.
This is where the recipes differ. Neither explains the use of cal (calcium hydroxide) which is vitally important for the nixtamalising of corn (although both tequesquite or wood ash can also be used as an alkalising agent).
- Take some of the water in which you cooked the corn and blend the anise
This is a clever trick. It is also used by Italians when they cook pasta and then use some of the pasta water to add to the sauce as it adds both flavour and starch. You wouldn’t tend to if you were using nixtamalising water as it is very alkaline (You certainly wouldn’t use wood ash water – you might use tequesquite water more freely as tequesquite can be used as a salting agent). See Post Nixtamal for more on the use of wood ash water.
- Add the mixture to the pot and cook over low heat for a few more minutes
- Add the flour dissolved in half a cup of cold water
We proceed to add the mixture, after blending it, to the pot, to let it cook over low heat for a few more minutes so that the flavours settle. When you think it’s appropriate, add the flour in half a cup of cold water, an essential step for any type of atole.
This is where we differ. Flour (harina de trigo) is not at all necessary. Masa harina (or dried nixtamalised corn flour) could be used and if you have no fresh masa then it might be the only ingredient you need. The most basic atole recipe consists of nothing but masa, water (and/or milk), piloncillo and cinnamon. This recipe however, if it is using fresh corn, would need to be thickened and the “flour” if it is indeed cornflour (which is something that might be used to thicken a custard for instance) would certainly do the job. Would this be the sign of a bad (or average) cook? Masa alone should be enough to thicken the drink. Even thickening a custard with cornflour is considered a cheats trick (or the easy way out) for chefs.
Blend the serrano peppers, strain and add them to the mixture
You can, in between, liquefy the serrano peppers, strain and add them to the mixture. Afterwards, we boil for another time, all together, until we achieve the consistency of atole. I make a parenthesis here because it depends a lot on how each family likes it, so the exact point may vary.
Again. Thick or thin. The texture is driven by personal preference. I like them thicker. Any way you look at it though lumpy is bad. You want a smooth liquid.
Boil the mixture until it reaches the point of atole
Serve accompanying the atole with salsa verde, chile perón (manzano) and limón.
This typical atole from central Mexico, ideal as a breakfast rich in powerful nutrients, being salty, it is essential to consume it with salsa y limón.
The superstition of some traditional cooks recommends that the spoon is not removed from the pot whilst the atole cooks, otherwise the atole will split.
The herbs mentioned in the recipe
Being a favourite flavour of mine I love the fact that the Mexicans seem to like anise. If not using local herbs such as hoja santa, pericón or certain avocado leaves then introduced herbs such as fennel or anise or spices such as aniseed (the fruit of the anise plant) or star anise will be substituted to obtain the flavour. My favourite type of pan de muerto (to both cook and eat) contains aniseed.
A few of the tagetes species of herb have anise characteristics and another in the family, T.minuta (1), also has that confusion of scents/flavours (is it anise? is it mint? is it basil?) common to another Mesoamerican herb (although they are nothing at all like each other) epazote (is it anise? is it mint? is it kerosene?). Epazote is (I suspect) much like cilantro in its effect on people. I say that “I suspect” as in my World the only people I know who have even tasted fresh epazote are my Mexican friends. In Australia epazote (which is a name it is not commonly known by) is just another stinking weed. The flavour of epazote is unmistakable and unforgettable and I suspect that the first time a non native eater (so to speak) partakes of this herb they will be confronted by its flavour. A flavour which persists and you will revisit every time you burp that day.
- known as huacatay (or Black mint and used in Peruvian cooking) or stinking Roger (its name in parts of Australia where it is known as an invasive agricultural weed)
Dill and epazote have been mentioned in various recipes. The both have their very own quite distinctive flavours but each is reminiscent in its own way of anise. Dill is a more delicate herb than epazote and won’t stand up to a long cooking time.
And, of course, if I can find a way to include quelites…….
Varieties of atole de grano
Varieties of atole de granillo.
Many of these varieties of atole are noted as being sour. This would involve a short fermentation time (perhaps no more than a day or two – or maybe as long as a week) which would turn this into a prebiotic/probiotic dish and add health promoting properties in a manner similar to kombucha or sauerkraut.
The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Mexican Gastronomy notes of the fermented drink atole agrio (1) that it is “prepared with fermented corn dough diluted in water and boiled until thick”. In many regions of the country atole agrio is still called names derived from Nahuatl. The Nahuatl word xococ or xócotl means “sour.”
- agrio = sour. According to Coromines and Pascual, first attested in the 16th century. From the older agro, used until the 17th century, from Old Spanish agro, from Late Latin acrus, from Classical Latin acer (“sharp, piercing, pungent”). Ultimately from Proto-Italic *akris, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ḱrós (“sharp”). Related to Old Spanish agrión (“berro” = A perennial European herb, Nasturtium officinale, that grows in freshwater streams; used in salads and as a garnish – and which has a “piercing” and “pungent” flavour)
The original atole agrio did not contain sugar. Different types of sweeteners, ground fruits or other ingredients can be added to the atole base that will give the sour atole its name and characteristics unique to each region.
There are two ways to prepare this atole;
The first is to let the corn or corn dough ferment, then mix it in water and then cook it;
The second is to prepare the atole with fresh unfermented masa, cook the atole and leave it in a warm place until it ferments. The fermentation of either of the two methods can be from a few hours to three days, depending on the custom of the person who prepares it and the taste for its sour and acidic flavour. The level of fermentation depends on factors such as temperature, environment, fermentation time, and personal taste (how sour do you like it?). This sourness/acidity reminds me of pulque and its extremely short shelf life.
- In Tila and Sitalá, Chiapas, young corn atole is made. The corn kernels are ground and left to rest until sour; then they are strained and cooked in water with cinnamon; at the end it is sweetened with sugar or brown sugar. Sour atoles often contain the prefix “xoco” (or xococ). This is also the same for quelites and other plant names. For instance xoconostle is the name for the sour variety of opuntia cactus fruits. More on this later
- In Michoacán, sour atole is very important for the Purépechas, who prepare it with fermented black corn dough. Guajillo chile or ground pasilla is also added.
- In Nayarit, the Huichols know atole agrio as tsinari , it is prepared with huitlacoche and is a ritual preparation. “Agrio” is also another word denoting a “sour” flavour.
- In La Joya Jacatepec, Oaxaca, the Mazatecs prepare it with corn dough, sesame and dried chili.
- In the Jalpa de Díaz area tender and ground dried corn is used for the ferment.
- In Huautla de Jiménez it contains ground corn dough, sesame seeds and chiltepec chile (chiltepin chiles are small and hot) seeds into a paste, as well as cooked ayocote beans.
- In Puebla, at least two varieties of xocoatole are prepared, one with black corn and the other with red corn.
- In San Luis Potosí, sour atole is made from broken white corn that is left to ferment overnight, ground and cooked with water; it is usually sweetened with brown sugar.
- In Tabasco a sour atole (jocoatole) is made with roasted and ground cocoa and pixtle (1).
- In Tlaxcala, a sour atole is prepared with soaked and crushed purple corn dough, which is left sour in a little water overnight, then dissolved with more water and boiled with cobs of the same corn to intensify the colour. Then it is strained and boiled again with cinnamon and brown sugar. Ayocotes are cooked separately in water and tequesquite, and added to the atole served in a bowl. Among the people of the country this atole is considered a complete meal.
- The word pixtle comes from the Nahuatl pitztli, and means bone or seed. This ingredient, widely used in Mexican cuisine since pre-Hispanic times, is the mamey “bone”. More on this below.
In Veracruz there are different versions:
- in San Miguel Aguasuelos the sour atole is cooked with pipián balls;
- in Chicontepec it is made of white corn sweetened with brown sugar and occasionally the same balls of pipián are also added, as well as brown sugar, cinnamon and water or milk
- for the Nahuas of the north of the state only water, corn and piloncillo is used (this is the most basic, pared down version of an atole and realistically you only need these 3 ingredients)
- in Zongolica and nearby areas it is made with water (and not milk as used by those barbarians in Chicontepec) and is served with tamales or sweet bread;
- Among the Totonacs of the north coast of the state, it is considered a very restorative atole, recommended for the sick, who sweeten it with piloncillo or sugar and usually take it to the cornfield to drink it during the day. The fermentation of this atole generally lasts one day and takes place over the embers of the stove. If it does not contain a sweetener, it is known as simple sour gruel.
- In Hidalgo it contains corn kernels cooked in water and is thickened with corn dough, cinnamon and brown sugar and sometimes contains milk.
- In Uruapan it is prepared with fresh corn ground with green chili, anisillo and pumpkin leaves or guias (squash vines/tendrils), resulting in a green drink. It is sold and drunk mainly during Holy Week. It also contains whole corn kernels; its flavour is salty and it is usually served with finely chopped perones or serrano peppers.
- In Zitácuaro it is made with baby corn, anise, green chili, corn dough and salt.
- In Oaxaca, the Chocholtecos make it simply with corn cooked in water with cinnamon, sugar or panela.
- In the regions of the Central Valleys it is usually made of corn cooked in water, ground in metate and strained; It is sweetened with panela and contains milk and cinnamon, and at the end of the preparation some of the same crushed corn is added. Although the original is prepared with corn, there are also other varieties in which rice is used.
In Chiapas several versions are prepared.
- In Sabanilla it is made with thick white corn, milk, myrtle leaves and sugar.
- In San Cristóbal de las Casas it is made with water and crushed corn.
- In Comitan it is prepared with white corn, sugar, cinnamon and lime.
In Chiapas there’s also a variety of atole de granillo which is also called atole agrio (sour atole)
For its preparation yellow or white corn, cinnamon, calcium hydroxide, sugar and water are required. This is interesting as the above recipe (which is a conglomeration of various translations of the same recipe) mentions the actual nixtamalising of the corn whilst the others do not. They do mention cooking the corn so as to soften it and remove the “shells” from the kernels. This is not suitably described in some recipes as cooking the kernels in boiling water alone (even if salt is added) will not remove the outer coating of the kernel (which is vital when nixtamalising corn)
Doña Teresa Cipriano, of Copoya, comments that first the corn is boiled in hot water (in which cal has been added) to peel the grain, once the nixtamalized corn is obtained it is ground, half of the dough is roughly ground and the other half is fine.
In Huasteca atole agrio is known as xocojatole. It is a thick corn stew that is served in deep plates. It evokes a pozole with beans stewed with epazote and cilantro, it can contain pieces of chayotes and be seasoned with ground chile, salt and hot sauce. This is an example of the type of atoles that are more than a drink, since in this case it can be considered a stew (guisado) or main course.
Some of the more unusual ingredients mentioned
Huitlacoche is the end result of a plant disease that grows on ears of corn around the kernels in puffy, grey clouds. Known as corn smut (1) in el otro lado, this fungus is called huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche) in México and is the equivalent of the Mexican truffle. Corn smut is a plant disease caused by the pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis that causes smut on maize and teosinte.
- smuts are multicellular fungi characterized by their large numbers of teliospores. The smuts get their name from a Germanic word for dirt because of their dark, thick-walled, and dust-like teliospores (2). They are mostly Ustilaginomycetes (phylum Basidiomycota) and are essentially a plant disease.
- teliospore, also called teleutospore, in fungi (kingdom Fungi), a thick-walled, winter or resting spore of rust fungi (phylum Basidiomycota) borne in a fruiting structure (telium) from which a club-shaped structure (basidium) is produced.
Ayocote (Phaseolus coccineus leiosepalus), also known as ayeócotl in the native náhuatl language, is a climbing legume, with pre-Hispanic origins. Ayocotes are one of the crops used in the Milpa agricultural system, whereby corn, squash and beans are grown in the same field at the same time. Its function is to increase levels of nitrogen in the ground, so as to compensate for the amounts consumed by squash and corn. Just as with squash seeds, Ayocote seeds belong to the group of the oldest domesticated plants of Mesoamerica. According to some researchers, Ayocote beans were domesticated in the Tehucán Valley between 4000 BC and 2000 BC.
The word pixtle comes from the Nahuatl pitztli, which means bone or seed. This ingredient, widely used in Mexican cuisine since pre-Hispanic times, is el hueso del mamey (or the mamey “bone”). The Australian and Queensland governments’ research and development programs have grown mamey sapote in Australia.
- 1 white onion
- 1 Mexican lime
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 serrano chiles
- 1 avocado
- Dried oregano
- 1 kilogram of precooked hominy corn (cacahuazintle)
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 litres of chicken broth
- 1 chicken breast
- 3 sprigs of epazote
- 8 medium tomatillos
- 7 radishes
- 1/2 bunch of coriander leaf
- 1/2 bunch of parsley leaf
- 7 lettuce leaves – don’t use iceberg – try a Romaine
- Boil the tomatoes and chili peppers in half a litre of chicken broth for 5 minutes. Blend them together with the coriander leaves, parsley and epazote, a piece of onion and a clove of garlic.
- In a litre and a half of chicken broth, boil the pre-cooked hominy corn for 60 minutes until the grains burst.
- Strain and sauté the sauce in olive oil for 15 minutes. Season with pepper, oregano, cumin and salt to taste.
- Add the green sauce and the cooked and shredded chicken to the cooked corn kernels and leave to season for 10 minutes.
- Serve garnished with radishes, lettuce, onion, oregano, avocado and a few drops of lemon; Accompany with toast and capon chili peppers.
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- Vázquez-Carrillo, María Gricelda; Santiago-Ramos, David; Domínguez-Rendón, Edith; Audelo-Benites, Marco Antonio (2017). Effects of Two Different Pozole Preparation Processes on Quality Variables and Pasting Properties of Processed Maize Grain. Journal of Food Quality, 2017(), 1–15. doi:10.1155/2017/8627363:
- M. G. Vazquez-Carrillo, DE. Santiago-Ramos, Y. Salinas-Moreno, and J. E. Cervantes-Martinez, “El pozole. Situacion actual y calidad nutricional,” in Los Alimentos en M´exico y su Relaci´on con la Salud, M. Aguilera Ortiz, R. Reynoso Camacho, C. A. G´omez Aldapa, R. M. Uresti-Marin, and J. A. Ramirez de Leon, Eds., Plaza y Valdes, Veracruz, Mexico, 2014.