What would a morning in Mexico be without atole? To enjoy an “atolito” is one of the most Mexican activities that could exist; it is practically a complete breakfast, a food as pleasant for the body as for the soul. With a thick consistency, this drink is a favorite of early risers, as it gives you the energy to do any kind of heavy work or it gives you a boost to wake you up. Throughout history, this drink has been associated with people from a lower social clase and therefore, it has not enjoyed a good reputation.
Originally pre-Hispanic, the name of this drink comes from a Nahualt word, the Aztec language: atolli (watery), although Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a noted Spanish Aztec history compiler, explains that it may have another interpretation from the composed use of the words: atl (water) and toloa (eating or swallowing), therefore it is considered as a kind of food or drink. Known in Spanish as mazamorra, it is mainly made of any variety of maize, and any color from yellow to black. In Mesoamerican culture maizes was considered essential for its sacred characteristics.
From the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to Mexico, atole went through another stage in its metamorphosis, thanks to the cultural exchange between both nations and the existence of a similar product in Spain known as gachas or puchas, which were elaborate masses made of crushed wheat.
In Sahagun’s book: General History of the Things of New Spain, there is a record of the most important sociocultural aspects of the drink. People of these ancient civilizations had atole for breakfast because of the energy boost it would give them to carry out heavy tasks and because it provided many necessary nutrients.
The same book mentions they used to drink it at any temperature, either hot or cold and that they would elaborate it using roasted or ground corn as well as crushed or burnt tortillas. Also, they would mix in beans, chili or honey. The best popular atole is the white one, also know as iztac, which only uses white nixtamalized corn and is not mixed with any other ingredient. Nixtamalization is a process that consists in the cooking of corn with water and lime (the mineral). very often a metate is used to grind the grains and obtain dough that can be used in many preparations.
There is a great variety of types of atoles, depending on the region where some of the ingredients that are included in its elaboration come from; therefore, each atole can be both unique and special due to the different flavours it can have. An example of this is the nequatolli, nicuatole or atole with honey, mixed with maguey honey from Oaxaca.
Others varieties of this drink are xocoatolli, a sour atole from Oaxaca. From Chiapas comes the chilliatolli or atole with chili. Also from Oaxaca we can taste the nechillatolli or atole with honey and chili. There is one that is mixed with chia seeds known as chinatolli, another mixed with beans known as ayocomollatolli, another mixed with amaranth known as michuauatolli and the one mixed with tree ash has the name of quauhnexatolli. The puzcua is a flavorless white atole that is prepared in Michoacan and the xacualolli is made out of pumpkin made in the states of Morelos and Tlaxcala. All of these varieties can can be sweetened with piloncillo, sugar or chocolate.
Little by little, people have stopped having atole. Even though there is still a solid group of avid consumers out there.it is difficult to find the most elaborate and traditional types such as the ones mentioned above. More commercial flavors are offered nowadays such as vanilla, strawberry or walnut that do not correspond to tradition. The result is that some people do not consider atole as a culinary reference anymore so it is very important to keep and make all the more traditional styles known since they offer health benefits and they comfort our spirits.