Atole is a pre-Hispanic, usually sweet, corn-based drink that continues to be sold on street corners and prepared in homes all over México. Chileatole is a savory version of this ancient beverage that, as its name lets on, is prepared with chiles.
As with many dishes in Mexico, I’m sure that there are thousands of versions of chileatole, especially because the recipe is prepared throughout the states of Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz and Mexico City. It’s frequently served as a soup-like beverage in ceramic mugs or, when sold on the streets, in styrofoam cups. Some versions of the recipe use epazote and fresh chilies such as serranos and/or poblanos while others opt to use dry chilies such as the slightly sweet ancho pepper. Additionally, there are other variations that are prepared with shredded chicken and grated piloncillo (cones of dark unrefined sugar) giving it a sweet and spicy finish.
I tried chileatole for the first time in the Mercado Jamaica, a market located on the eastern side of Mexico City that is well-known for its large array of flowers. In addition, the market boasts a wonderful selection of fresh, in season produce and it is known for its huaraches (oblong shaped, masa patties stuffed with beans and topped with salsa and fresh crumbled cheese).
In the southern-most aisle of the market there is a small section with about 4 to 5 vendors that sell only corn and this is where I first came across chileatole. This recipe comes from Veronica Ramirez de Estrada, who works alongside her husband preparing and selling corn based dishes in the stand called Elotes Estrada.
Veronica was gracious enough to allow me to quickly interview her one morning as she finished cleaning the chicken feet for the popular street snack patitas de pollo. She explained that her husband has had the corn stand in the Jamaica Market for many years, but that she didn’t start working with him until her three young daughters were older and more independent. Now, after almost a decade working alongside her husband, she says she still loves her job because it allows her to socialize and interact with customers.
She mentioned that at first they only sold fresh corn, roasted corn on the cob and esquites, a common Mexico City street snack made with corn kernels cooked in broth, with epazote and chile de árbol. As the years went by they began adding other dishes to their menu, including roasted esquites, chileatole and patitas de pollo. The corn they sell most of the year is called criollo and is generally grown in the states of Hidalgo and Morelos. From June to November, however, they sell a type of corn called cacahuazintle, which has larger more rounded kernels and, according Veronica, is incredibly delicious.
The version that she and her fellow vendors at Mercado Jamaica sell is different from other chileatoles that I’ve tried. The main differences are that it’s not quite soupy or atole-like, and that it has a lot more corn kernels. It’s prepared with all the characteristic ingredients of chileatole, including serrano and poblano chiles, epazote and corn masa. But you don’t drink this version of chileatole, instead you eat it with a spoon and top it with ground piquin chile, lime, grated cheese and mayonnaise. In this sense, Elotes Estrada´s chileatole strikes similarities to the esquite.
La Señora Verónica
Roasted Corn on the Cob / Elotes Asados
Elotes Estrada Stand / Puesto de Elotes Estrada
If you’d like to visit Elotes Estrada in the Jamaica Market to try the chileatole, the hours are from 10am – 9pm from Monday to Sunday.
Elotes Estrada (Aisle L, Stand # 18)
Av. Morelos, Col. Jamaica, entre Congreso de la Unión y Guillermo Prieto,
Del. Venustiano Carranza
Ciudad de Mexico
Metro stop: Jamaica (brown line)
Corn: Ideally you would prepare chileatole with Mexican white corn, which is easily accessible at any market in Mexico. However, in the States I think that it’s virtually impossible to find corn that is not the sweet, bright yellow kind. So, if you are in the U.S. I doubt that you will have any other option but to use sweet corn, but don’t worry the dish will still be tasty.
Chiles + Herbs: Fresh epazote, serrano chiles and poblanos are readily available in my hometown of Chicago. However, depending on where you are, fresh epazote may be more difficult to come by. Dried epazote is sold along with dried spices and chiles in Mexican grocery stores, but if you can’t find it–either fresh or dried–you can use cilantro in its place. Ground chile piquín is easily found in Mexican supermarkets, but if you don´t have any on hand you can always use cayanne pepper.
Corn masa: If you’re outside of Mexico, fresh masa may difficult to come by. I know that there are tortilla factories in Chicago where you can buy fresh corn masa and that in some Mexican grocery stores; bags of fresh masa are also available. Veronica from Elotes Estrada says that if you don´t have masa you can blend between a ¼ to one cup of corn (depending on the quantity you are preparing) with a little bit of water. This mixture can be used instead of masa. Another option is to make the masa with Maseca, a brand of prepared corn flour, but I personally think this masa tastes pretty bad.
Serves 4 – 6
- 3 cups of corn kernels
- ½ cup of fresh corn masa
- 4- 5 cups of chicken broth or water
- 1 – 2 poblano peppers with the stem and seeds removed (It’s hard to know how hot poblanos will be, so if you are very sensitive to spicy food use just 1 chile poblano)
- 1-3 serrano chiles, depending on how spicy you want it to be
- ¼ cup of epazote leaves
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Salt and pepper
- Crumbled fresh Mexican cheese
- Ground piquin chile or cayenne pepper can be used as a substitute
3 tips from Veronica when preparing Chileatole:
- Make sure to stir the chileatole regularly so the masa doesn’t clump together or burn.
- If you notice that the liquid is evaporating make sure to keep adding water or broth.
- If you don’t have access to corn masa you can add a small portion of blended corn, about ½ cup in its place.
Blend together the poblanos, garlic, epazote, serrano chiles and 1 cup of broth and set aside. In a medium sized pot heat 1 cup of chicken broth and remove from heat. Add the corn masa and stir until dissolved. Return to heat and add the poblano mixture, corn and two more cups of broth, making sure to stir very regularly. Cook for about 45 minutes over low to medium heat. Serve hot, topped with a dollop of mayonnaise, chile piquin, slice of lime and crumbled fresh Mexican cheese.