A Mouth Watering Read: ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel (1989)

like water for chocolate

The last Mexican book I read was ‘Down the Rabbit Hole,’ Juan Pablo Villalobos’ demented tale of life at the very heart of a drug gang.  Reading ‘Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies’ felt like an important exercise in balance.  While my reading around the world inevitably ends up with postcard impressions of different counties (my Finland is entirely the creation of Tove Jansson, and everything I know about Mozambique comes from Paula Chiziane), it feels only right to expand my limited perception of Mexico as presented through its fiction.

For a start, ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is resoundingly matriarchal.  Men appear as lovers and carers, but it is the women who leap off the page, whether their vocation leads them to feed and heal or kill and torment those around them.  It is clear that whatever men can do, women can do better, so the male doctor in the book was inspired by his Kikapus Indian mother, and it is a woman who appears as the fiercest official in the revolutionary army.  There’s also my favourite character, the sadistic and selfish, Mama Elena: ‘It wasn’t easy to shell a thousand nuts without getting sick of it.  The only person she knew who could do it without any sign of fatigue was Mama Elena.  Not only could she crack sack after sack of nuts in a short time, she seemed to take great pleasure in doing so.  Applying pressure, smashing to bits, skinning these were among her favourite activities.  The hours just flew by…

There is a lot of destruction in the novel, with family tensions always ready to boil over and various armies traversing the narrative at inconvenient moments.  Food, though, is ultimately redemptive.  In fact, the everyday alchemy of the kitchen is exaggerated as magical realism weaves its way through the story.  The kitchen hub creates food so sensual that women nearly combust and have to strip off to combat the heat it engenders.  When the cook is upset, her bile infects a wedding cake with disastrous consequences for the whole party.  Tita, mistress of the kitchen from before her birth, lives out her life through her creations, at one point she is ‘literally ‘like water for hot chocolate’ – she was on the verge of boiling over!’  As you would expect from such an extraordinary chef, she has passion and loving enough to encompass the world, and Esquivel takes great pleasure in exploring the potential for humour when her emotions and cooking get out of control.

My only quibble with the novel is the guilt that it creates in a slothfull reader like myself.  While every chapter comes with its own signature recipe, I’m well aware that I’m never going to be able to infuse my cooking with Tita’s magical skill; I must confess it’s extremely unlikely that my own kitchen will ever be the setting for the complicated delicacies Esquivel shares.  Even the recipe for chocolate intimidates me – but I do plan on buying this book for more culinarily-talented friends, and hoping for the best…

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13 Responses to A Mouth Watering Read: ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel (1989)

  1. Sarah says:

    I have this near the top of my TBR pile, and have been collecting other Esquival novels whenever I see them after enthusiastic recommendation from a friend of mine. It sounds wonderful, and I’m be keeping my fingers crossed that some of the passion for cooking will rub off on my rather mediocre culinary skills!

  2. I haven’t read this in so long, but you’ve reminded me how much I loved it 🙂

  3. Ditto, madamebibi’s comment!

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  5. Great review. I loved this book,and I finally gave in and read it last year. Enjoying your blog.

  6. Ste J says:

    Cooking is a challenge, reading magical realism is not so this is a good mix, although the lack of my cookery skills does make me feel inadequate.

    • If you’re interested in chemistry, there’s a great bit where the recipe given is for making matches. The whole book is really about making things with passion so I really shouldn’t have taken the wonderful cooking thread quite so seriously.

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