Though we often think of Mexico as being a warm country, the reality is it can get cold through much of Mexico. In the dead of winter, it can get below freezing in some places—like when Zacatecas got below freezing a couple of years ago. The deserts of the north do little to preserve heat in Mexico, and high-altitude locations like Mexico City and San Cristóbal de las Casas will also feel chilly in the winter.
During the early morning, late nights, or the winter months, many Mexicans drink atole to take the edge off the cold, and you’ve likely seen it being sold on the streets. It’s a common drink sold on the streets of Mexico at breakfast or dinner. You may have seen signs from street vendors and you might have wondered: what is atole?
The word atole (also sometimes shortened to “atol”) comes from the Nahuatl word atolli which means “watery”. The word is a compound of “atl” (which means water) and “tolea” which means to drink or consume.
The first written accounts of atole come from Hernan Cortez’s Cartas de Relación, where he described that the ancients would make a drink from honey, chiles, water, and corn. He described this drink as being very energetic.
Some form of this drink likely predates the Conquest by ten thousand years to when we have our first archaeological evidence of corn being soaked in alkaline water and then ground into a fine grain. This process is called nixtamalization and it’s the secret to atole.
That said, it was the Spanish who allegedly found the watery drink unpalatable, and began to make the drink with milk. Today, you can find atoles that are made with water, with milk, or with a combination of both. For this reason, atole can vary in thickness, from a porridge-like consistency to a thin-pourable drink.
As you can guess, atole is made by heating the fine ground masa harina—which is the fine-ground corn flour that we mentioned earlier—while slowly adding water or milk (typically water for this first stage).
*Note: there are a variety of ways to do this first stage. For example, in parts of Honduras, they use the water that is left after corn grounds have been pressed. Other atole recipes call for boiled corn grains as the base instead of masa harina. This gives atoles a rich variety which ensures that—like salsas—every recipe is different.
*Also, according to atole expert Javier Añorga, some atoles have even been known to use a base of other grains like rice or amaranth.
The second step typically involves steeping the mixture in spices. Most often these spices are a cinnamon stick, though you can find recipes that call for cloves or fresh vanilla in addition or as a replacement.
The third step usually involves adding the piloncillo. As you may recall from our article on tepache, piloncillo is a pressed sugar (similar to brown sugar) made from unrefined sugar cane. It is grated and dissolved in the mixture. It’s usually found in the form of a cone.
The last step is to add milk or condensed milk and the main flavoring ingredient. This can be fruits or nuts, but the most common is champurrado. This means that it is made with Mexican chocolate. Champurrado is the most universal and common flavor of atole, and it is found in all 31 states and CDMX.
There are many different types of atole. There are even Atole Fairs with over 70 different types of atole. Though most atoles are sweet, some can be sour, salty, or even spicy (though these are very rare). We encourage you to be adventurous the next time to see an atole street vendor in your local area. Why not give it a try and discover what is atole for yourself!
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For several years, Rafael has been crafting articles to help expats and nomads in their journey abroad. He takes great pride in meticulously researching the ins-and-outs of bureaucratic processes in different countries around the world. A digital nomad for almost a decade, Rafael also enjoys exploring cultural phenomena in his articles to better help expats and nomads assimilate. If you have any questions or issues with the content of an article, he’s the one to contact for further information.