Tascalate Is The 3,000-Year-Old Chocolate Drink You Should Know About

In the United States, corn gets eaten fresh from the cob, ground into cornmeal or grits, liquified into corn syrup, and mashed into a bill for making whiskey, notably the corn-dominant American-favorite bourbon. But many thousands of years ago, Mayan societies routinely incorporated corn, known as maize, into a vast array of foods and drinks. One such ancestral beverage is the revered and unforgotten tascalate, which dates back at least 3,000 years. Its composition remains pretty much the same today, though modern traditions lean more toward ordering tascalate in a coffee shop rather than bowing to a king. 

As the story goes, tascalate was once such a treasured drink in the ancient Mayan community of Palenque that citizens were required to honor the monarch by bowing and thoroughly consuming an offering of tescalate. The architectural ruins of Palenque remain in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas, where the drink still holds sway in cultural and culinary traditions — with surprisingly few, if any, changes. Tascalate is still made with ground maize, powdered cacao, and the richly colored red achiote seeds, also called annatto seeds

Tascalate gets served in a similar way as hot chocolate in the colder months, but it commonly appears chilled during hot summer days or when sold bottled in markets. Though tascalate in its pure, traditional form contains no alcohol, it happens to serve as a tasty base for beloved cocktails containing Mexican spirits such as mezcal.

Tascalate flavors and cocktails

For use in tascalate, the maize gets dried, toasted, and then ground into a mixable powder. Though maize-based drinks are less common in Western traditions, they're nothing particularly unique in Mexico. Ages-old favorites such as tajate and atole offer hearty maize-based beverages that are earthy and filling, depending on how they're served. Tascalate similarly carries a thick composition due to the maize, but its other core ingredients are equally impactful. 

Cacao and achiote bring their own defining elements, including a flavor-packed mix of earthy, sweet, and bitter notes with added nutty and peppery tones. Like the maize, these two ingredients are toasted and ground before being mixed with the maize and stirred into water, sometimes using a traditional wooden molinillo whisk. Some recipes today add brown sugar or ground cinnamon, and milk can replace water when creating the drinkable liquid. 

However, when serving as the base for cocktails, chilled water remains the preferred mixer for the powdered maize, cacao, and achiote. In a traditional Chiapas-style tascalate cocktail, a mezcal is the crucial alcohol component. The sometimes smoky flavor of mezcal, which comes from fire-pit roasting, adds depth and complexity to the already earthy and multi-flavored notes of the tascalate mix. It may be harder to find tascalate drinks in standard bars or coffee shops outside of Mexico, but you can make your own using achiote paste, unsweetened cocoa, a powdered corn flour such as masa harina, and any preferred sweeteners or mezcal.