Paletas Are the Mexican Popsicles Every Freezer Needs
Flavors range from tamarind, to spicy chile mango, to cinnamon filled with goat’s caramel.
There are popsicles. And then there are paletas. The former is what most Americans think of as a quintessential summer treat. They arrive on a thin wooden stick in unnatural shades of blue, orange, red, and purple and stain your tongue for the rest of the day with a sugary slick. Paletas, or Mexico's take on the frozen treat, also arrive on thin wooden sticks but that is where the similarities stop.
The word paleta roughly translates to “little stick,” which makes sense given how it is served. But unlike American popsicles which are flavored with a mix of sugar syrups and food dyes, paletas are constructed from whole ingredients like fresh pureed fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices, explains Fany Gerson, the talented pastry chef behind New York City-based paleta shop, La Newyorkina. This results in a wide range of flavors beyond things like "grape" and "orange." Gerson notes that at her shop, they have "anywhere between 40-50 [paleta flavors]; some have chunks, others are spicy, a few are filled.”
The varieties of paletas are expansive. Sure, you can snag a standard strawberry or watermelon paleta, but they also come in flavors like tamarind, spicy pineapple jalapeño, and cajeta-canela: a Mexican cinnamon ice pop stuffed with goat’s milk caramel. Gerson's personal favorites include flavors like passion fruit-coconut and hibiscus raspberry. Each flavor is super refreshing and has none of the artificial flavors of most standard popsicles. Plus, thanks to the color variety, they are aesthetically pleasing to boot.
The origin story of the paleta in Mexico isn’t entirely clear. Travel to Mexico, and a common name for paleterías will keep popping up: La Michoacana. The Austin Chronicle notes that “Michoacana is a toponym, meaning someone or something from the state of Michoacán in western Mexico. But the name is used [for paleterías] in virtually every state of the country, and it is not because it's a national chain.”
As one of the stories goes, an ice cream maker from Michoacán, who spent time in the United States and was influenced by the frozen desserts there, returned to Mexico in the 1960s to set up his own shop introducing Mexico to the paleta. An alternative history claims that paleterías have been springing up since the early 1930s thanks to ice cream purveyors Agustín Andrade and Ignacio Alcazar, both Michoacán natives.
Regardless of its ambiguous backstory, the name La Michoacana became intertwined with delicious paletas. And thanks to Mexico’s relaxed copyright laws in the earlier half of the 1900s, eager entrepreneurs took the name and ran with it, opening up their own paleterías all over Mexico before making their way to the United States.
Nostalgia is a huge part of the appeal of the paleta. Gerson recalls being a child in Mexico and the pure joy of heading to the paletería with her sister for the frozen dessert. “I remember being very excited when I could reach [the paletas] on my own and got on my tippy toes to peak inside the freezer to see them. I loved how colorful they were -- it was just amazing.”
Gerson decided to open up a paletería after traveling around Mexico conducting research for her first cookbook, My Sweet Mexico. “I came back with a new purpose of sharing the sweetness of Mexico and had a dream that I would open a Mexican ice cream shop in New York because you couldn’t find anything like that in the city.” At Gerson’s shop, paletas ring up for $4 per ice pop -- well worth the cost when considering the fresh fruits and whole ingredients that make up her treats.
Up in Modesto, California is Paleteria La Michoacana, where paletas are made and distributed to retailers all across the United States and Canada. According to the vice president of sales and marketing, Paul Storke, millions of the frozen pops are sold each year -- and with good reason. “Paletas are heart-felt, non-conventional, and always evolving -- drawing on Mexican cuisine as inspiration,” he said.
The paletas from Paleteria La Michoacana can be purchased at Walmart, Safeway, Costco, and many other local grocery retailers and gas stations, and cost around $1.25 for a single popsicle and upwards of $6 for a dozen.
“Mexican food is renowned for its variety of flavors, colors, and unique combinations of ingredients,” explained Storke. “A paleta is a distillation of this passion for food… delivered in an ice cream or juice bar on a stick.” What's not to like?