Old New World: Aztec chianatolli

Aztec chianatolli

The Aztecs ate or drank a variety of what are technically gruels. While I tend to associate the notion of a gruel with being sick, most of these starchy liquids were simply daily meals, though some of them were said to have medicinal qualities. There was atolli (water, lime and maize), nequatolli (water, lime, maize and maguey syrup), nechillatolli (water, lime, maize, honey and green chile), hoauhatolli (water, red amaranth, and honey) and many, many, more, including pinolli (ground toasted maize that could be transported and added to water) which is probably the most familiar today. Chianatolli (chía seeds, sometimes toasted and ground) could be taken plain or with chiles. You'll see a lot of optional options below!

chía seeds


makes about 5 cups

  • 4 cups water
  • 3 large limes (optional) 
  • 2 TBSP agave nectar (optional) 
  • 1/4 cup chía seeds
  • 1/4 tsp dried ground chile (optional)

If using limes, juice and set aside the juice. Toast the chía seeds by spreading in a pan over medium heat, stirring constantly,  just until they smell nutty, about two minutes. Set aside to cool.  Add agave nectar (optional) and lime juice (optional) to water and stir briskly. Strain into a pitcher and whisk chile (optional) and chía seeds. Chill for at least 30 minutes and stir briefly before serving.



I tried grinding the chía seeds with a mortar and pestle, but my mortar and pestle are very small - I wound up with tiny seeds all over the kitchen, so I opted to leave them whole.  If you have a larger mortar and pestle or a dedicated spice grinder, that would work.

I was pretty excited to learn that the maguey plant is the agave plant.  Maguey syrup would have been pretty similar to agave nectar, I imagine, although not raw agave nectar as maguey syrup was boiled down.

More modernly in Mexico lime juice is added to make a chía fresca; I'm not sure when this became commonplace but I find it more to my taste than the austere chianatolli. The plain chianatolli is more accurate, but try it both ways and see what you like!

Recipe adapted from Paletas by Fany Gerson and America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe.

Aztec chianatolli