The History of Mexican Candy
There are very few countries that can claim an assortment of candies as broad and delicious as Mexico’s. Mexican “sweets” (they aren’t actually all sweet) come in a variety of surprising textures and exquisite flavors; some candies also have a long-standing tradition in Mexican culture, making them an even more integral and valuable part of the nation’s heritage.
An Origin Story
Something you may not realize is that chocolate actually originated in Mexico. The Aztec people believed that the cocoa plant was a gift from the tree of life, given to them by the god Quetzalcoatl, and used the bean as currency. They also made a drink out of it; however, they used spices instead of the sugar Europeans later decided to use to make hot chocolate. The Aztecs instead mixed in different spices, such as chili peppers, to give the bitter bean mixture some flavor, and Mexican chocolate today still contains a variety of spices. It is also often used as an ingredient in other dishes, rather than being consumed on its own.
Though sugar was not used, the original inhabitants of Mexico did use honey, and kept bees to make sure they had a consistent supply of honey. They mixed it with corn or seeds for food; one such food is the still popular treat alegría, which consists of amaranth seeds that are mixed with honey. This mixture was also used in religious ceremonies, where sculptures representing Aztec gods were made out of alegría, and then broken down so everyone could consume a small piece. Honey was also an important part of the alcohol production process.
Another candy that is still popular in Mexico today is the chicle, or chewing gum, which both Aztecs and Mayans got from trees and chewed to clean their teeth, make them feel less hungry, and give them fresher breath. They called it tziktli, which is where the name that is used in various countries comes from.
Post-Conquest: Sugar, Sugar, Sugar
When the Europeans began to invade Mexico and other countries in the Americas, it actually opened up possibilities to the population of Mexico when it comes to importing new foods. As mentioned above, it meant the introduction of processed sugar, which was a huge influence; it has become an integral part of a number of candies that are now considered to be traditional Mexican foods.
Mexican mazapan, as opposed to the commonly known marzipan (made with almonds), is generally made from ground peanuts mixed with sugar. Its origins are the same as marzipan, which is believed to either originate from the Middle East, or in China, from where it was introduced to the rest of Europe through the Middle East. The oils of the ground nuts mix with the sugar, and the whole is formed into a stiff dough, which can then be cut into pieces. Mazapan is known for being extremely crumbly.
Another category of candies uses sugar as well, though here it is more used as a type of glue than as an ingredient. Boiling down whole sugar cane, also known as panela or piloncillo, creates a sweet syrup. This syrup is then used to stick together nuts or seeds. This is now used to make alegría, but it is used to make palanqueta as well, which is harder, and made with nuts and sometimes fruits.
Dulce de leche is made in various countries, and may not even originate from Mexico, but it is highly popular there. It is made from sugar and burnt milk, which is stirred while it boils to create a thick, soft candy.
Of course, an iconic Mexican candy is the sugar skull. These little molded skulls, made out of sugar cane paste, are used in celebrations of the Día de Muertos. During this holiday, the spirits of deceased children and adults are allowed to leave heaven and visit with their families, who celebrate their memories; the skulls are meant as a treat for these spirits, with small ones crafted for the spirits of children, and full-sized ones placed on the altars for visiting adult spirits. They are thus meant for decoration, rather than consumption; an interesting fact about this is that sugar art have been used as a cheaper substitute for church decorations in Mexico since the 1700’s.
Something a Little Different
A now-popular ingredient in Mexican candy, originally from Asia, is tamarind. This sour fruit is particularly appreciated in candies that mix it with sugar and chili peppers to create an explosion of flavors all in one candy.