Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

Two years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun.  As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan.  Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it.  Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in México.

Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink.  Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water.  Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.

After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets.  Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it.  The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar.  The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water.  The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.

Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.


Where have you tried your favorite cup of hot chocolate?  Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!

Five Meals in Baku, Azerbaijan

In late 2016, I visited Baku, Azerbaijan, after learning about the ease of getting a tourist visa if you were a passenger on Azerbaijan Airlines’New York JFK-Baku GYD flight.  With more time, I would have explored the vast biodiversity of the country; however, this short trip was focused on Baku, the Azeri capital, and a few of regional historical landmarks.

As such, today’s post will be centered on a few meals that I tried while in Baku.  With food heavily influenced by Turkish and Iranian cuisines – as well as Russian cuisine – I had high hopes for the Caspian Sea metropolis. Nuş Olsun (Bon Appétit)!

Having done no prior food and drink research about Baku, I decided to rely on the local knowledge of the Azerbaijan Airlines flight attendants; their suggestions were written below, on a less than flattering in-flight sickness bag.

While paying homage to the FAs’ recommendations, the first thing that I ate in Baku was a quince.  Most commonly consumed as a fruit spread, quinces are quite popular in the Caucasus region.  I think quince jams and paste go great with manchego and melba toast, but take my word for it, a raw quince is astringent, awkwardly crunchy, and thus no bueno.

After a day trip to a couple of cool places – I will get into them at a later time – my shady taxi driver dropped me off at this restaurant, ostensibly managed by his “friend.”  Nevertheless, it was a good intro to Azerbaijani food, replete with delicious pomegranate, pickled eggplant, local non-spicy giardiniera, somewhat bland bread (more on this in a moment), raw greens, ayran – a mix of yoghurt, water, and salt – and piti.  What, a piti?  Sorry.

Piti, a soup made with a base of chickpeas, lamb, and chestnuts, comes from the northwestern town of Sheki.  It is always served in an earthenware pot, and can even include quince, cherries, and other items, depending on the season.

About half way through eating the piti, a waiter came by to demonstrate that I was eating it wrong.  You are supposed to rip up the bread, place it in the bowl, and then pour the piti on it.  The pickles (and onions, which I had already eaten by this time) are a traditional accompaniment, as is the floral yet subtle sumac to sprinkle on top.  When eaten correctly, it all comes together so much better~

Xaş (khash)…here’s where we get into the doldrums.  Originally a cheap meal for farmers, and found as far away as Mongolia and Greece, khash is a stew made of tendons in cow and/or sheep feet.  In Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it’s generally eaten in the winter, and is amusingly eaten to overcome hangovers.

It was extremely oily, heavy without any pleasant flavor, and ultimately not something I’d want to eat again.

Now we’re talking!  Lyulya kebabs, made of minced lamb, onion and plenty of salt, served with more onion, delightfully chewy bread, and narsharab, an Azeri condiment made of sweet and sour pomegranates.  Pomegranates are known as the king of fruit in Azerbaijan, where more than 200 varieties of the vermilion fruit are grown.  Even some dishes are made with pomegranates and eggs…I’m curious about this one.

Just don’t throw that bread out.  It’s rude.

What better way to finish off a brief tour of Azerbaijani food than with paxlava, also known as bakhlava?  The intricately designed paxlava on the top left is called şəkərbura (roughly, shekerbura), and is filled with walnuts and sugar.  On the bottom, tenbel paxlava, or lazy paxlava, made with ground walnuts, sugar, and a sweet syrup.  Although I’m a tea drinker nearly 100% of the time when compared to coffee, as this was a jet lag dish, I went for a cuppa.

If you want to read more about Azerbaijani cuisine, check out this article.

Three Tamales and a Cup of Atole in Atzacan, Mexico

As of today – and since many years back – my top three countries for food, in no order, are Mexico, Turkey, and Japan.  There are plenty of countries out there with excellent eats, and I’m still missing what I believe to be heavy-hitters in the culinary world (the biggest one being Iran), but for a variety of factors, those three places are tops.

Thus, having friends or family in those destinations also works out swimmingly.  Whether it’s local knowledge, language help, or having someone who doesn’t mind mouthing off to line-jumpers, you will cherish the experience.

Case-in-point, let’s take a brief look at the city of Atzacan, located in Mexico’s Veracruz state.

Downtown Atzacan

Last year, with friend who called the region home, I visited the small municipality of Atzacan.  For those linguists out there, the name Atzacan derives from three Náhuatl (a group including the Aztecs) words— atl, or water, tzaqua, or stop, and can, or place; in other words, “the place where the water stops.”

Founded in 1825, Atzacan is best known for its maize (corn) and beans, as well as an annual festival in April celebrating Santa Ana (Saint Anne), its patroness saint.

Beans Vendor at a Food Market in Downtown Atzacan

Of course, we were there to eat.  Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – my friend was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.

This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons.  One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious.  Two, it’s a locavore’s delight.  And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.

Although the tamal can be found in countless forms stretching from Mexico to Chile, I couldn’t believe how many types there were just in Atzacan!  Given how filling tamales are, we only sampled a few:

Chocolate Tamal, Strawberry Tamal, and a Cup of Corn Atole (not seen, the Rapidly Devoured Coconut Tamal)

Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding Atzacan, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.

As for the atole, the hot drink made of masa, cinnamon, water, and often raw cane sugar (piloncillo), it’s a particularly heavy pairing with tamales, though no less tasty.  Over time, atoles, too  have come to be prepared with guavas, pineapple, nuts, and other naturally sweet ingredients…though its most famous cousin, champurrado, is made with masa, water, and chocolate.

My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener.  Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of super-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.


Have you visited Atzacan, or anywhere in the state of Veracruz?  Are you a fan of tamales and atoles?