A Taste of Little Havana: Hot Drinks with Ancient Roots

The molinillo

I’m not sure how I ended up with a molinillo among my kitchen utensils. It seems I’ve owned it for years, and I think I received it as a gift.

I had no idea what this elaborately carved wooden kitchen tool was used for, until relatively recently. Now I treasure it … and know how to use it.

The molinillo is a turned wood whisk with rings attached to the bottom. You hold it between your palms and rotate it by rubbing your palms together, back and forth, letting the tool froth up your hot chocolate or other traditional hot drink.

The molinillo was developed by the Spanish in the 1700s and I’ve seen it for sale in Little Havana bodegas and even supermarkets.

Hot (and Cold) Chocolate

Hot chocolate, Colombian style
Hot chocolate, Colombian style

Back to the image of frothy hot chocolate: mmmmm.

Do you know where chocolate comes from? The Americas. If I wanted to grow a cocao tree in my backyard, I could: Miami’s climate is right.

Chocolate comes from the fermented, roasted and ground beans of the cocao tree. Evidence points to cocoa beverages being drunk in Mesoamerica as far back as 1900 BCE!

It’s no wonder, then, that drinking hot chocolate or cocoa is a tradition here in Little Havana. I’ve discovered some of the different ways people like their hot chocolate, based on cultural roots.

At the Colombian restaurant San Pocho, which is walking distance from where I live, I’ve tried hot chocolate with pandebono (a chewy cheese biscuit that is best when fresh) or queso blanco (white cheese). Colombian hot chocolate tastes totally different from Swiss Miss: I can savor the real cacao and enjoy the balance of the sweet drink with the saltiness of cheese. From what I hear, the “chocolate Santafereño” tradition includes dropping or dipping the cheese into the hot chocolate, so it melts.

At local Mexican and Cuban restaurants, I’ve savored hot chocolate paired with churros, tubes of fried dough dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

On a hot Miami day, one of my favorite drinks is fresco de cacao con leche: the cooling, creamy version of hot chocolate. It is much tastier than any chocolate milk I’ve ever tried before — less sweet, but rich in flavor and sometimes with a slight grittiness that I like. In our bodegas, you can buy the cacao mix packed in plastic bags.

Cinnamon is a favorite addition to local chocolate drinks, I’ve noticed!

There are some local chocolate traditions I haven’t even experienced yet. I’ve heard that Salvadoreans like to dip salpores into their hot chocolate. These are dense, hard sugar cookies, made with flour from yuca, rice or flour. 

Peruvians like their hot chocolate very sweet and rich. Their “tres leches” version is made with regular, evaporated and condensed milks, cacao powder, chocolate bars (!), corn starch, vanilla extract, cinnamon and salted butter. There’s that sweet/salt combination again!

I’m looking forward to trying a submarino at a local Argentinean establishment. In this tradition, you dip a chocolate bar into a mug of steamed milk, until it is fully melted.

Atole

Champureado and Rosco de Reyes
Champurrado and Rosco de Reyes

The first time I tried atol was when I lived for several months in Durango, Mexico, back in my twenties. The thick drink was part of the daily late night meal, usually accompanied by light pastries/breads like concha. The big meal of the day was lunch.

I didn’t know it then, but this beverage has its roots in Mayan cuisine. Although the commercial version of the drink often include artificial flavors, it was originally made only from finely ground corn (masa) flour, water, unrefined sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and sometimes additional fruits.

Here in Little Havana, I’ve been lucky enough to taste atol handmade by a Nicaraguan neighbor of mine, Sonia. Her atole de elote was made with fresh corn. I’ve discovered that a couple local restaurants occasionally serve this type of atol: Cabanas Restaurant (435 SW 8th St.) and Ciudad Guatemala (2795 NW 7th St.).

The best hot drink I’ve ever tasted, however, is a Mexican atol called champurrado, served during the holiday season. The first and only place I’ve been able to try it is here in Little Havana, at Mi Rinconcito Mexicano (1961 SW 8th St.). This chocolate-based atol is thick and rich with spices and is prepared with masa (hominy flour), piloncillo and water (or milk). It often includes cinnamon, anise seed and or vanilla bean, as well as ground nuts, orange zest and egg. So good!

Herbal Teas

I’d tried the tea Yerba Mate before, back when I lived in Washington, DC, but I had no idea how healthy it was until after I moved to Miami. Yerba mate is a proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory; some studies say that it helps prevent cancer, too. The plant has caffeine and is a natural energizer, too!

It’s perhaps the most famous herbal tea in all of Latin America, used for centuries and acclaimed for its health benefits. It is made from a species of holly native to subtropical South America (parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay).

Even though it has all these health benefits, I’d argue that it’s most famous for being what I would call a “social tea” — a tea meant to be shared with family and friends. If you have friends over to your home, prepare a pot of yerba mate that everyone can enjoy while engaged in conversation and perhaps some guitar playing.

The traditional way to drink yerba mate is to pour the hot tea (prepared with hot but not boiling water) into a hollowed gourd, using a bombilla (metal straw) with a built in sieve for drinking. Read more about mate and the social etiquette for how it is shared.

If I want to drink herbal teas here in Little Havana, I don’t have to settle for a tea bag. A lot of the herbs used in healing teas grow year round, and I can grow them in my garden or purchase them at a local market or fruteria. Fresh is fresh! Yerbabuena (spearmint) and Manzanilla (chamomile) are favorite teas.

Hot pinol
Hot pinol

Pinol/Pinolillo

In the Little Havana murals by local Nicaraguan artist Archie Nica, I’ve noticed a common theme: a woman holding a jicara in her hands. The jicara, made from dried jicaro fruit, is a perfect natural drink container. What drink does she hold?

The national drink of Nicaragua, or pinol.

It’s an ancient Mesoamerican drink, made from ground toasted maize, and it’s very similar to atole. Often, herbs and flavorings are added to it such as ground cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, achiote and even ground mustard seeds.

I’m glad that you can still find pinol at various Nicaraguan and other Central American restaurants in Little Havana (like El Gallito at 205 SW 8th Ave.), but I’m saddened to hear that every year there are fewer sellers of pinol on the streets of Central America.

I look forward to learning more about these delicious hot drinks, all with ancient origins and some with many health benefits. In the meantime, I will keep savoring them!

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