Pulque in Mexico: Synthesis of Medicinal and Mythical Properties

Since the pre-Hispanic era in Mexico, and continuing to date, there have been several species of agave used to extract aguamiel (honeywater). Once this sweet, coconut-milk-like liquid is removed from the heart of the succulent and thereby exposed to bacteria and yeasts in the environment, it ferments and becomes viscous. Fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. Over hundreds of years, and more likely millennia, medicinal properties have been attributed to pulque, by means of myths which have been passed down through generations of indigenous populations, and more recently as a result of scientific inquiry (not without contraindications regarding the latter). As might be expected the literature is not always consistent in both its factual underpinnings and conjecture. Nevertheless a lay synthesis in a summary fashion does serve to illuminate.

Pulque, for a couple of hundred years had been associated with an elixir for the masses, a mild intoxicant with curative powers. Buoyed by the natural/organic and to a lesser extent the slow food movement, it has been elevated to trendiness. The predominantly middle and upper class millennials living in Mexico’s larger urban centers such as Monterrey, Puebla, Guadalajara and of course Mexico City, flock to pulquerías. However most of what is being served up is an adulterated form of pulque known as curados. A base of pulque, sometimes even canned, is combined with a selection of processed fruits, grains and/or vegetables, sugar or another sweetener, and sometimes milk/cream and/or a thickener such as corn starch. These curados could not be further from the real deal, and likely by the time they arrive at the table any beneficial attributes, medicinal or otherwise, have been long lost due to its commercial handling. However pulque available in bars and restaurants in cities close to rural regions where aguamiel is extracted (i.e. Oaxaca, from the fields outside of the town Santiago Matatlán) is anything but 100% unadulterated. The closer proximity the cantina or comedor is to the field from which the aguamiel has been harvested, the greater the likelihood that the pulque has not been bastardized and that it has retained its positive properties.

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