The sweet aroma of exotic fruits and live seafood.
The sound of the animatronic Elvis Presley-impersonator, guitar-playing lion.
The sight of the hulking Campbell’s soup can sitting on a bench, swinging from the ceiling.
Jungle Jim’s International Market assaults your fives sense before you even get the chance to taste the foreign food.
Going to Jungle Jim’s once a year is my only family tradition. Every year we pile into two cars, drive 45 minutes across freeways and backroads, then end up walking around the store for hours. But there’s just one reason we’re there. Well, two reasons really.
Hot chocolate and cheese.
And when we get home, we combine the two to make the tastiest winter drink out there.
I know what you’re thinking: Hot chocolate and cheese? Together? That sounds like the most disgusting concoction known to mankind.
Let me explain.
First of all, it’s not the typical sugary, American, Swiss-Miss hot chocolate. And it’s not the pre-sliced Kraft American singles. It’s authentic Colombian hot chocolate — bitter and flavored with cinnamon — and a South American melting cheese, like Oaxaca or queso fresco.
Sure, the drink itself is delicious. But more than that, this strange dish means a lot to me, because it’s really the only connection I have to my heritage. I’m Latina, but I’m a very American Latina. My father moved to the U.S. from Colombia when he was nearly 35 years old, and sometimes it seems like he’s worked so hard to fit in with American mainstream life that he doesn’t want us to embrace his side of the family. I don’t blame him; he’s had to work harder than a lot of people to make his own way in the U.S.
So without any other ties to the Hispanic half of myself, working with my dad at the kitchen stove to create the perfect pot of foaming chocolate stands as a way to embrace that part of me.
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That’s the power of food.
But the ingredients aren’t the only thing specific to Colombia. The technique is a whole other battle — a battle I lost on Christmas day when making hot chocolate for my family this past year.
When you make this drink, the foam is the most important part. Each mug has to have a layer of foam on top. To get the foam, you use a special wooden whisk called a “molinillo madera.” After you melt the chocolate in the pan with some water, milk and sugar, you twist the whisk in the pan until you get a small simmer and you can see foam forming.
When my dad makes the hot chocolate, the foam takes up every ounce of his attention. Ladling the hot, sugary liquid into our mugs isn’t enough — he has to take special care that each cup has a strong layer of foam on the top.
While he dishes up the drinks, I take my place as the American-Latina and perform the easy task of cutting the cheese (literally) into half-inch thick slices.
Then, my family sits together, eating gooey cheese covered in liquid chocolate.
Though this year we couldn’t have our five senses attacked upon entrance to Jungle Jim’s because of COVID-19 (we bought the ingredients locally instead), my siblings and I found ourselves thinking about how the only recipe from our heritage comes across as a disgrace to the hot chocolate community.
Yet we will love and cherish those flavors until the end.