Growing up in Oaxaca, la gelatina rosita (“pinkish jelly”) was a biweekly ritual – every other Saturday, our mother would return from the market with this special dessert. It was so ingrained in our routine that we couldn’t imagine life without it. In fact, on a family trip to Mexico City, we were shocked to learn that gelatina rosita wasn’t readily available. Did they know what they were missing?
It was only when we were older did we learn the proper name of this precious Oaxacan specialty: nicuatole. Some say its etymology can be traced back to Nahuatl (one of the many Indigenous languages spoken in ancient Mexico), specifically the words necuatl (“agave honey”) and atolli (“liquid corn”). While this may be true, it doesn’t quite portray what nicuatole is, not really.
For the untrained eye, the corn-based, pre-Hispanic dessert can be difficult to spot – the white gelatinous chunks, sometimes square-shaped, sometimes round, are roughly the size of an apple, and most commonly can be found in Oaxaca’s markets, piled in big blue containers and sold by the women who make them. Some might say that nicuatole looks and feels like flan or panna cotta, but the comparison only goes so far as the taste is entirely different. On first bite a subtle corn flavor registers, while the presence of vanilla and cinnamon helps balance the alkaline and starchy nature of the corn, giving the dessert a slightly spicy twist. A steady sweetness, supplied by sugar, permeates the dish; too much and it overpowers the spices, too little and the corn dominates all the other ingredients.
Even among Oaxaca’s many complex dishes, nicuatole is one of the most difficult to make. It requires a great amount of time and movement for it to reach the right texture: simultaneously soft and firm, so that a spoon can cut it. Getting it right requires the unparalleled mastery that only grandmas have.
Vendors usually make it themselves, but most of the time its preparation is a team effort. Just like sous chefs prepare the way for chefs, daughters or grandchildren get everything ready so mothers or grandmas can work their magic. Everything starts smoothly, with a big portion of tamal dough, which is then cooked with water or milk, sugar (or molasses), cinnamon and vanilla. It may sound simple, but this is the easy part – from this point things start getting tough. This is where the boss takes over. The trick (or at least one of them, as a nicuatolera will never reveal all her secrets) is to mix it non-stop for at least 40 minutes, until it reaches that perfectly gooey density.
“Nicuatole is like a kaleidoscope, you can walk around the city, turn around corners, and you will always find a different one.”
Once nicuatole is cold, nicuatoleras crown the surface with a thin layer of sugar colored with either the dye extracted from a cochinilla (cochineal, a tiny insect) or pink food coloring. It’s best when served chilled, as all the flavors are sharpened. We like to buy it right before heading home, so that it can rest a while in the fridge before we take our spoon to it.
More modern takes on nicuatole include additions like pineapple or shredded coconut, and are quite popular. But the creativity of nicuatoleras knows no bounds, so there are surely more innovations waiting to be discovered. We get a thrill out of prowling around Oaxaca’s different markets on the hunt for new versions.
“Nicuatole is like a kaleidoscope, you can walk around the city, turn around corners, and you will always find a different one,” confirms Doña Priscila, one of Oaxaca’s most respected nicuatoleras. “This is what I’ve learned from nicuatole itself, as I’m sure other nicuatoleras have. The dough always tells you what are the best ingredients to add, the amounts, or how many times you need to move it. The masa [dough] talks to you, if you know how to listen.”
For the last 50 years, Doña Priscila has religiously set up her stall in one of the plazas nearby Mercado Hidalgo, using the same recipe from day one. Every day, except every other Sunday, she brings dozens of freshly made nicuatoles from home. Besides the classic ones, she also sells other versions, from pineapple to the less-common tejate (a cacao and corn drink). Doña Priscila always manages to surprise her clients, which is perhaps why she has been able to keep them coming back for all these years.
After a summer spent craving gelatina rosita in Mexico City, our parents decided to indulge us with a sweet treat before the start of a new school year – they took us to Doña Priscila. We marveled at the gooey pinkish nicuatole in our hands, even then recognizing its singularity. But as children are wont to do, we didn’t dwell on it for long. Instead, we plopped down on a park bench to finally fulfill our craving. Then and now, it’s a dessert that tastes like home.