Food & Drink

Circle Around Colombian Hot Chocolate

colombian hot chocolate
Chelsea Marotta/Thrillist

As a Colombian, when I tell my American friends about drinking hot chocolate in the afternoon, they often find it weird or funny. Someone once laughed and told me in a condescending voice that drinking chocolate in the afternoon was for little kids. I’m here to tell you, Colombian hot chocolate is a completely different experience. It’s something you can enjoy at home with your roommates or family.

For most of my life growing up in the U.S., where I immigrated at the age of 10, I carried a secret shameful for any Colombian: I didn’t like hot chocolate. It wasn’t until I moved back to Colombia after graduating college, as I was trying to reconnect with the land I’d been torn from when I was 10, that something unexpected also happened: I grew to love the hot chocolate. And now, it seems like the world is ready to love it with me. 

You’re probably familiar with the two most popular versions of hot chocolate: The sweet, marshmallow-topped kind you order on-the-go at Starbucks to fight off the winter cold; and the spiced Mexican hot chocolate that’s become almost as popular. But with Colombia becoming one of Latin America’s rising tourist destinations, there is a growing interest in our culture and, hence, our hot chocolate. 

Colombian hot chocolate is proudly served in Colombian restaurants all over the US, and chain supermarkets in neighborhoods with large Latinx populations stock it on their shelves. The fact that I can simply go to Publix to find the dark, comfort-filled Corona tablets (I know, unfortunate name, but it’s the go-to chocolate brand in my home country) is proof that the time for our hot chocolate is here. And no, it is not the chocolate you’re probably used to.

Colombian hot chocolate is not Mexican hot chocolate 

Like its Mexican counterpart, traditional Colombian hot chocolate is actually bitter, not sweet. It’s made with tablets of pure dark chocolate, and purists will still only drink it in water, not milk. With the global sweet tooth evolving, many tablets now include added sugar, and most people dissolve them in either full milk or half water, half-milk. The result is a drink so far from Americanized hot chocolate, no one would ever think of adding marshmallows or whipped cream to it.

So if it’s bitter and it’s (traditionally) made with tablets, isn’t Colombian hot chocolate just the same as Mexican? 

Like our distinct versions of Spanish, Mexican and Colombian hot chocolate share a foundation and can mostly understand each other, but have their own slang and flavor.

In their simplest form, they both are made by letting the tablets dissolve into a liquid, and then frothing the mixture with a specialized tool called a molinillo. However, Mexican hot chocolate typically includes spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and can even include chilies, which is how the Aztecs often drank it (mixed with corn and without the sugar) during rituals. 

Spicy hot chocolate may sound interesting, it’s definitely not something Colombians would ever make. At the risk of shocking those who think of Latin America as a monolith culture, most South American countries don’t actually have much spicy food.

The melty surprise at the bottom of your mug

Colombian cuisine seems to be ruled by the idea that simpler is better, so rather than spice up our hot chocolate, we do something no one else does: we fill it with cheese. Yes, you read that right, cheese. In fact, this is such an important part of the tradition, we have a saying for it: chocolate sin queso es como amor sin beso, chocolate without cheese is like love without a kiss.

For this to work, you can’t just use any old cheese. Usually, you’d go for queso campesino or queso doble crema, two types of Colombian cheese. They’re perfect because of their consistency, and because they melt without fully losing their shape. This is important because what you do is drop blocks of cheese into the hot chocolate, drink casually while you wait for them to melt, and then fish them out with a teaspoon. The warm, semi-melted cheese perfectly complements the frothy beverage and fills your belly and your soul with comfort.

If you can’t find either of these cheeses, you can use buffalo mozzarella or queso oaxaca (which is, ironically, Mexican). If the chocolate is being served in an afternoon luncheon, it is usually also accompanied by bread.

Over the years, I’ve offered -- OK, fine, forced -- many people to try Colombian hot chocolate with cheese. I’m pleased to report that, despite skepticism, most people actually enjoy it.

Important Colombian hot chocolate ingredient: Gossip

Besides convincing people that not all hot chocolate is sweet, and that the cheese thing actually works, what I love the most about introducing this tradition is recreating the best part of it: its taste of afternoon gossip and coziness. Because chocolate is our original drink (coffee was a European import), it is ingrained into society in a powerful way -- particularly in mountainous places with cool weather year-round, such as Bogota.

In an almost ritualistic manner, dwellers of the capital invite each other to “onces,” our version of afternoon tea that more often than not includes hot chocolate with cheese, assorted bread, and tamales. The time is not coincidental: the warmth of the beverage is the perfect way to counter the sereno, or the cold air that breezes through the city once the sun sets. While scooping the cheese out, people share gossip and laughter, complain about politics, and tell family stories.
 
It was over cups of hot chocolate that my grandma told me about her life and taught me the history of the country through her personal stories. She’d talk about the poems her sisters recited when they were young, about seeing the rows of bodies at the Central Cemetery after Bogota burnt down in 1948, about how she had met my grandfather (who died before I was born), and how she was staring out the window moments before a bomb in 1991 exploded a block away and shattered them all. 

So if you ever decide to give Colombian hot chocolate a try, whether you’re at a restaurant or your own home, make sure you never order it to go or drink it alone while you watch a Netflix show. Rather, gather up friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, or get all of your family to sit at the table. Pour it, sip it, scoop the cheese, and watch as life stories rise from the steam of your cup.

How to make Colombian hot chocolate

This recipe is for chocolate Santafereño, which is how traditional hot chocolate is made in (Santa Fé de) Bogotá. 
Ingredients (4 servings):

  • 4 pure chocolate tablets (you can find them at the International Food aisle in supermarkets or at specialty stores).
  • 4 ½ cups of whole milk.
  • ½ block of cheese: queso campesino or queso doble crema if you can find them. If not, queso oaxaca or buffalo mozzarella. 

Tools:

If possible, try to find a molinillo and an olleta, which are the traditional tools used to make Colombian hot chocolate. If not, a regular pot will work. 

Directions:

  • Boil the milk in the olleta or pot. If you prefer your chocolate to be more bitter, you can simply skip the milk and use water. If you want it to be sweet but not too heavy, you can do half water, half milk. For the third option, you should boil the water and then add milk at the end. 
  • When the milk/water is hot but before it boils, drop the chocolate tablets in and stir until they dissolve. 
  • Once the milk/water boils, place the molinillo into the olleta or pot with the round end in. Holding the long end of it in between both of your hands, roll it quickly to create foam while blowing air into the hot chocolate. This should bring the boil down. 
  • Wait for the milk/water to boil again and repeat step #3 twice. Boiling the hot chocolate three times helps make it frothy. 
  • Serve the hot chocolate into cups and drop bits of cheese into each one. 
  • Begin drinking the hot chocolate. When the cheese is soft, scoop it out with a teaspoon and eat it. 

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Mariana Zapata is a Thrillist contributor.