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Taste History With Tejate, an Ancient, Pre-Hispanic Street Drink

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A shrine to corn masa has blessed West Adams’ St. Agatha Catholic Church

Tejate lady, West Adams
Bill Esparza

Blink and you’ll miss it. A folding table animated by a yellow banner with green lettering draped over the front of the table, obscuring the top half letters of the word, Tejate, barely registers under the shade provided by one of the few trees on this stretch of West Adams Boulevard.

The sign is too wide for the table covered in to-go containers of a Oaxaca dessert called nicuatole, a scatter of ingredients and a stack of ornate red bowls called jícaras, made from dried gourds of the calabash tree. Spotting a tejatera (woman who make tejate) outside of Oaxaca is a rarity in Mexico, but comes as less of a surprise in West Adams, near the center of Oaxacalifornia where the second largest Oaxacan community in the world has contributed to LA’s vibrant restaurant scene.

Making tejate
Bill Esparza

Tejate is a pre-Hispanic beverage consisting of toasted corn, fermented cacao seeds, cacao flower, mamey seed, and water that’s hand stirred until is reaches a porridge-like consistency. Sugar can then be added if desired. Perhaps a cold, watery porridge isn’t your idea of the best way to cool off on a hot day, but this “drink of the gods” features layers of flavor from toasting and fermenting the corn and cacao seeds that has been refreshing Zapotec commoners and kings for thousands of years.

Tejate has popped up at Oaxacan food events, and restaurants like Guelaguetza carry nicuatole but Doña Roberta, a traditional street vendor from San Marcos Tlapazola, in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, is the real deal.

You’ll want to drink tejate ice cold and fresh — upon arrival, Doña Roberta stared into her large clay bowl (called an olla de barro) with pursed lips, shook her head in disapproval and dumped the previous batch, as it had broken apart. “Tejate is very delicate and needs to be freshly made — this sun isn’t good for the drink,” Doña Roberta said, as she repositioned her table in the shade. “If you don’t mind waiting 5 minutes I will have it ready, the way it’s supposed to be.”

Tejate, an ancient Oaxacan beverage
Tejate in Los Angeles
Bill Esparza

Doña Roberta also offers a tejate made with coconut in the place of cacao. Could tejate be the next health food craze? In order to have tejate prepared like this, you might have to fly to Oaxaca City and catch a taxi to the Tlacolula Market on a Sunday, so waiting five minutes is modest request.

Drinking from a red jícara requires two hands as you ritually cup and tilt the bowl filled with a warm-tan colored liquid covered in a fusion of lumps of corn and foam created by the constant dipping and pouring of the tejatera. Order a nicuatole, which is a gelatinous sweet corn pudding flavored with red prickly pear and a Oaxacan quesadilla filled with mushrooms, corn fungus, or squash blossoms from Doña Roberta’s stand, but mind the tejate. Otherwise Doña Roberta might have to make you another batch.

Tejate Doña Roberta Estilo San Marcos is open weekends on the southeast corner of W. Adams and S. Mansfield Ave. in front of the St. Agatha Catholic Church at 2646 S Mansfield Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90016, West Adams, Los Angeles.

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