Mexican hot chocolate is the generic name for a spicy chocolate drink made with chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, chilies, anise, and other spices, depending on the region of Mexico it is made in. In other parts of the world, it is often made with Mexican chocolate, a bitter and granular solid chocolate mix which is designed to be melted and mixed with milk or water to make Mexican hot chocolate. When early European explorers were introduced to chocolate, it came in the form of Aztec hot chocolate, which would be unrecognizable to most modern hot chocolate consumers. Explorers brought back samples of cocoa beans, the raw product used to make hot chocolate, and in Europe other spices were added, along with cream and sugar.
The scientific name for the cocoa plant is Theobroma cacao. Cacao is derived from a Nahuatl word, xocolatl, and theobroma means "food of the gods," a reference to the sacred place that chocolate had in Central American culture, and presumably the delicious flavor, which captivated Europeans when it was discovered.
Traditional Mexican hot chocolate as it would have been drunk by the Aztecs is made by grinding cocoa beans with cinnamon, anise, chilies, and vanilla pods. Some other regions of Mexico add spices like cardamom to the mixture, which is frothed in hot water with a molinillo, or chocolate whisk. The result is a bitter, granular drink which is also quite thick and intense. Another version, champurrado, is sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined brown sugar used in Mexico, and thickened with ground corn masa.
In Oaxaca, chocolate appears in a cold drink, Tejate, which uses dark chocolate, cocoa flowers, and thick corn masa. The drink is allowed to sit and marinate before being frothed and served cold over ice, although some restaurants offer Oaxacan hot chocolate, using the same ingredients. Some modern cafes have reinterpreted Tejate, making fermented iced chocolate drinks with exotic ingredients like green tea for an interesting and refreshing flavor.
In most of the world outside of Mexico, Mexican hot chocolate is made with milk instead of water, and sweetened with sugar. Many packaged Mexican chocolate products actually include grains of piloncillo to cater to a sweet tooth when they are sold outside of Mexico. At home, the Mexican chocolate can be melted and mixed with a liquid to make a version of Mexican hot chocolate which some consumers like to enhance by adding chilies, cinnamon, and other spices.
For people unfamiliar with the mixture of chilies and chocolate, the idea of traditional Mexican hot chocolate might seem somewhat distasteful. However, the fiery chilies, bitter chocolate, and sweet sugar interact in the mouth to create an interesting textural and flavor experience. The concept of chilies and chocolate also appears in mole and other Mexican dishes. This would suggest that the combination is very familiar and popular in Mexican cuisine.