Mexico is known for Mayan ruins and colonial cathedrals, chillis and tortillas, sombreros and tequila. Most travelers seek out some combination of chilled cervesas and hot beaches, indigeneous crafts and famous murals. No one drinks the water in an often unsuccessful attempt to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge, everyone hopes they don’t get robbed (almost no one does) and chances are not enough sunscreen is applied. While there, I hit many of Mexico’s highs and lows, but throughout I tried to include an additional dimension of cultural exploration: the national and regional candies, sweets, and dulces of Mexico.
Much like the history of Mexico itself, the candy of the region exists as a combination of modern, indigeneous, and colonial influences. Sweets that have been around for thousands of years sit side by side Spanish-influenced colonial candy and modern mass-produced treats of corn syrup and artificial colors in candy stores. No era has acheived full dominance over the candy market, which means it is possible to try a veritable timeline of candies while traveling – and of course, each region of the country has their own little niche.
The first and most basic form of “candy” in Mexico is simply the fruit. Mangoes, pineapples, and coconuts have long helped the people of the region satisfy their sweet tooth. The great civilizations of the region developed additional techniques for candy creation: bars of honey, nuts and seeds were common in the Aztec areas of Mexico long before the conquistadors arrive, along with sweetened tuna treats (made of the fruit of the nopal cactus, not fish like it sounds like.) And, of course, most famously cacao was first discovered in Mexico by precursors to the Olmecs around 1800 BC, albeit in a form very different from the sweet chocolate bars that plague our teeth today. Until the arrival of Europeans, the cacao bean served two main purposes: both Mayans and Aztecs created a drink used for ceremonial purposes as a stand-in for human blood and the latter considered it a form of money, where one cacao bean could purchase a single large tomato.Today, fruits are served on street corners all over the country for very little as a refreshing snack. Cacao is still served much as the Mayans drank it in Oaxaca, where it is possible to buy bags of freshly ground cacao beans mixed with sugar, cinnamon, or vanilla to your specifications from the prolific chocolate stores. Queso de tuna is a specialty of the Zacatecas market and women wander the squares of northern cities with baskets on their heads full of round bars made of honey, sunflower seeds, and peanuts called palenquitas, and small sweet square bars of amarynth seeds and honey called alegrias – although not without some interference from the Spanish government, who banned amarynth seeds for almost 300 years due to its history as the base for small, sweet, pagan statues that were used in Aztec rituals, including that of human sacrifices.
Once the Aztec civilization was subdued by the Spanish forces, the Catholic Church began moving missionaries in, building monasteries and convents to help civilize the indigenous population. The convents, largely staffed by Spanish nuns with European traditions were instrumental in creating many of the distinctively Mexican candy flavors of today. These colonial candies are quite varied, from the sweet caramely flavored cajeta made in Celaya of sugar and goat’s milk to Morelian ate, a delicious chewy fruit spread made of guava, apples, peaches, or pears. Perhaps the most disturbing “candy” are the cooked sweet potatoes called camotes. Devised by a student as a practical joke on a nun at the monastery in Puebla, the joke backfired when the nun ended up enjoying the roasting sugared potatoes, to the student’s surprise. The squishy, yammy sweet with undertones of chocolate, coconut, pineapple, or strawberry was not my favorite Mexican candy!One interesting thing about the colonial candy is that while it is possible to get most of it throughout the country now, each sweet has an association with the specific convent and city that gave birth to it, making travel to that city an amazing way to learn about the candy in depth. Perhaps more interesting are the different reasons that nuns made sweets at all. The first (and most obvious) was to sell the candies for money and to provide the indigeneous people of the regions a new way to harness their natural resources. The second more unlikely reason that nuns would create delicious sweets was to treat their friends and lovers – not exactly an image most people have of Catholic nuns!
So, what is seen in candy stores today? The traditional stores sell most of the colonial and pre-Columbian candies, of course, but most gas stations and convenience stores stick to modern, mass-produced Mexican candy. There really isn’t a large market for candy imported from the States or from Europe, but there are numerous Mexican candies with very distinctive tastes that aren’t sold anywhere else. Mango, tamarind, watermelon, and lime are common flavors, and the use of a sweet chili powder shugar is ubiquitious and delicious. It is common to buy lollipops or hard candies with a separate packet of spicy chili powder to dip the sweet into, and if that isn’t available chances are the chili flavor is added in already. Although I feel bad for the way the mass-produced candy is starting to shut the handmade traditional candy out of the market, I have to admit that my sweet tooth extends to it as well.So what does this all mean for a traveler to Mexico who wants to take in some of the candy of the region? What are the best destinations or candy activities? Mexico City is an obvious destination, with a wide variety of candy stores and pretty much all of the traditional candies freshly available. From here most travelers will head out to visit a few colonial cities: perfect because most of these cities have their own regional specialties. For example, Celaya is a small city famous for Cajeta and many of the stores offer free tasting and the opportunity to watch the making of cajeta in action. Morelia has a candy museum that documents the history of candy in the region, and offers free tasting, while Puebla has a street lined with candy stores and more free samples at the tourist office. (You may notice that my suggestions revolve around free samples…)
From here it is a short trip to Oaxaca where the scent of freshly ground cacao beans fills some streets. The chocolate here is quite different from American or European chocolate, as it is much more coarsely ground and sugary, but it is perfect for a traditional hot chocolate drink. Heading to the eastern coast the use of fruit such as coconut and pineapple becomes much more common, with cookies filled with a pineapple jam or sweetened coconut bars native to San Cristobal de las Casas and the Yucatan. Any one of those cities should offer a traveler an interesting taste into the Mexican culture of sweets.