It’s a hot day in Mexico when you pass by a row of big glass bins containing a cold white slimy liquid. Curious, you watch it ladled out, viscous and effervescent at the same time, with a lingering thread connecting ladle to mug. Then, they shout, “Sale el natural, y el curado, ¿de qué sabor?“
What flavor of pulque do you want? Natural or cured? In case you haven’t heard about pulque, it’s an ancient drink that comes from the heart of the agave plant, aka aguamiel, which is later fermented. In contrast to the mezcal production process which requires harvesting the entire agave, cutting off the plant is not necessary for pulque.
When I say ancient, I mean it. This is one of the oldest drinks in the world, the earliest records found are from the year AD 200. Those writings also mention that pulque was reserved for the elders and priests and if a young person was caught drinking it, punishment could even mean death.
The name “pulque” was coined by the Spaniards. The original name would depend on the region and included octli, poliuhqui, or tlapehue, and it means to be corrupted or destroyed.
Fast-forward to pulque’s next big appearance, after the colonisation of Mexico, when the indigenous practices and beliefs – and its age-restrictions – were forgotten and it started to gain popularity. As Mexican society evolved through colonisation and revolution, creating strict class structures often based on skin-color and autochthonous facial features, pulque, with its indigenous roots and simple recipe, found itself positioned as a drink of the poor people.
A marketing smear campaign waged by two national beer companies didn’t help pulque’s reputation either. In the late 19th century, pulque was the burgeoning beer industry’s main competition due to its low cost and popularity. A coordinated rumor was started about how pulque was fermented, claiming that a piece of cow excrement wrapped inside a piece of fabric was placed inside the pulque to boost the fermentation process. This rumor still lingers but debunking by pulquerias, pulque aficionados, and even social media have helped stage a comeback.
As with many fermented products available on the market, like kombucha, yogurt, sourdough bread, or miso, pulque offers bacteria to our bodies that is often good for us. The fermented sugars of the agave make pulque unique and easy to digest.
A curado takes this process one step beyond. It has the foundation of pulque but is fermented overnight with fruit pulp. Apple and pineapple are the strongest flavors that combine really well with the agave.
Now that you know pulque is good for your gut and that it’s an inexpensive and refreshing drink option, you really should try it! While pulque is far better known and more popular in Mexico City, Hidalgo, and Tlaxcala, it is starting to make appearances on restaurant menus throughout Oaxaca City. You can also find it in roadside stands in many regions of Oaxaca. Topeka, a friend and local pulque enthusiast, tells me there’s good pulque in Tlaxiaco in the Mixteca. It’s less acidic compared to the one you can buy at the Tlacolula market. If you are new to this drink, ask for “garlic pulque”, but it has to be in Spanish: “un pulque de ajo” which is slang for “pulque for a broke person.” There’s no sense in forming an opinion until you have tried them all!