Atole: All about this prehispanic beverage

Atole is a hot, thick beverage with a long history from Mexico and Central America. In this article, I’d like to answer some of your questions and introduce you to one of the most delicious and ancient Mexican drinks.

Atole

What is Atole?

The atole (ah-TOH-leh) whose name comes from the Nahuatl “atolli”, means “watered down”. It is a drink that dates from pre-Hispanic times, it was traditionally used by different indigenous tribes for healing or simply nutritional purposes.

Currently it can be made from nixtamalized corn dough or corn starch, diluted in water or milk. Nixtamalized corn is the process in which the grain of the cob is cooked in an alkaline solution, usually it is a combination of water with cooking lime. Once soaked, it is ground to obtain the dough.

The corn masa dough.
Nixtamalized corn dough (masa).

This Mexican beverage is not only delicious, it is also nutritious! The traditional atole, whether made from white, yellow or purple grain corn, it is a food rich in fiber, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, as well as vitamin B1 and B7. It is an excellent source of energy, for every 100 grams of cooked corn there are 123 calories. And, if we add extra ingredients like fruits or nuts, its nutritional value will positively change.

When is it consumed?

Usually, this beverage is drunk mostly in the morning, for la merienda (afternoon light meal), or on cold days. It is common to see the street stalls selling this hot drink alongside with tamales outside the offices, near the restaurants or markets. For many people, on their way to work, stopping for an atole with a tamal becomes part of their traditional breakfast.

A man selling atole and tamales in a cart.

This prehispanic drink is also widely consumed during festivities such as Día de los Muertos (Nov 2), Día de la Candelaria (which takes place on February 2nd), Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

During the observance of the Day of the Dead, one custom is to place cups with this hot beverage on the altars of the dead or on their graves, so the spirits of the departed will come back and enjoy it as they used to do when they were alive.

Altar de muertos.

What’s the difference between Atole and Champurrado?

One of the most popular in all regions is the famous champurrado. Champurrado is also a thick drink made with chocolate or cocoa, which distinguishes it from the others not only because of its popularity, but also because it is slightly thicker than other varieties of Mexican atole.

A man serving champurrado in a cup.
A man serving champurrado in a disposable cup.

Types and Variations

The variety of combination of flavors and ingredients is very wide, each region has its own type of atole and way of seasoning it. The atole is corn based so the color is determined by the color of the grain. It is common to use blue, yellow or white dough, giving the drink a particular color.

Condiments made from spices such as cinnamon, cocoa, orange blossom, anise, brown or muscovado sugar, fruits like guava,pineapple, orange, coconut, strawberry, blackberry, and walnuts, hazelnuts, chocolate, almonds, even salt and chili, create an almost endless range of possibilities of aromas and flavors.

Various flavors of atole served in clay cups.

Now that we have an idea of all the possibilities, let’s look at some examples of the types for this traditional beverage.

Traditional recipes

  • TRADITIONAL: It is made with the nixtamalized dough and water/milk. It is the most “simple”, sometimes it is flavored with some spices, but it can also be consumed “naturally”.
  • CHILEATOLE: From eastern-center states, the atole is consumed soup style, basically it is the atole in its salty variant, to which you can add chili, vegetables and even meat.
  • SAGÚ ATOLE: It is a drink that has been used for medicinal purposes by the Purepecha people. It is made from the plant that bears the same name.
  • ATOLE DE ZITUN: It is common in the Michoacan region, it is made of blackberry, giving it an exquisite sweet flavor.
  • CHILATE: A cold version made with cacao, rice, cinnamon, and sugar. This recipe is very popular between the mixtec, amuzgos, tlapanec, and afromexican people from Guerrero.
  • ATOLE DE TEJA: Very common in Queretaro and in the State of Mexico. It is made from the sunflower seeds dough.
  • ATOLE DE TANCHUCUÁ: Consumed in the peninsula of Yucatan and Tabasco, is prepared with fresh corn, peppercorns, anise and chocolate.
  • ATOLE NEGRO: It is prepared on the night of the Day of the Dead, it has corn dough, corn hair (from fresh corn on the cob), cocoa shell, anise and piloncillo sugar. The ingredients give it a dark color giving rise to its name.
Corn atole in a clay cup.

Dichos (sayings from Mexico)

Atole is not only part of Mexican gastronomy and history, it has also generated many sayings and phrases widely used within the Mexican culture. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Más vale atole con risas que chocolate con lágrimas (atole with laughter is better than chocolate with tears): Although its flavor is delicious, previously the atole was considered a drink for the poor classes and chocolate was related to the upper classes, hence the saying, it can be interpreted as better to be happy even if you are poor, than to be rich but unhappy.
  • No se puede chiflar y beber atole (you can not whistle and drink atole): It is better to do one thing at a time, than two done poorly.
  • Si con atolito vamos sanando, pues atolito vámosle dando (if with atolito we are healing, then we keep on with the atolito): Probably its origin was related to the healing properties that are given to the atole in some regions. This saying can be interpreted as if a method is effective, it should be followed rather than trying a new one.
  • Contigo la milpa es rancho y el atole champurrado (With you the corn field is as beautiful as the countryside and atole is sweetened with chocolate). Is a love expression about not matter how things go, with your beloved one at your side everything looks better.
  • Dar atole con el dedo (give atole with a finger): It is one of the most common sayings, it means to deceive someone. Its origin has to do with giving “a little taste” – or palliative – to someone to calm them down.

Recipes

Check out our recipes for this traditional Mexican beverage. It is so easy to make and the perfect drink for the coldest month.

Atole de Elote (corn atole)
Atole de elote is a warm, thick and sweet Mexican beverage made with corn kernels, cinnamon, and milk. Learn how to make it with this easy recipe.
GO TO RECIPE
Atole de elote recipe.
Oatmeal Atole: A Mexican hot drink.
Oatmeal Atole is a creamy, comforting and hot beverage perfect to warm you up in winter. It’s delicious, filling and so easy to make at home!
GO TO RECIPE
Atole de Mazapan
Atole de mazapan is a warm and comforting Mexican drink with a thick texture and a delicious nutty flavor.
GO TO RECIPE
Atole Mazapán.

Now we are ready

We know more about atole and its enormous possibility of flavors and textures; the next time we go to the kitchen to prepare this favorite Mexican drink, we will do it with a different vision. This is not only a delicious beverage, it is also a cultural representative that Mexico and Central America share with the world!

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