The Kitchen Think: Sweet Heat


We love it spicy, sweet … and sometimes a little salty.

Get your mind out of the gutter, folks: We’re talking about Latino flavor preferences for candy and sweets. Many flavors of all things dulce haven’t really caught on with the mainstream American market, but that may be changing.

To understand the Latino fascination with candy, we need to go back – way back – to where the world’s obsession with all things sweet and decadent may have started: The Aztecs. They drank xocóatl, a thick mixture of cacao beans and tropical spices. Spanish conquistadors liked what they tasted and carried this exotic concoction back to King Carlos V, who fell in love with the beverage, especially after it was sugared, diluted and had some of the more eclectic spices removed. He renamed it chocolate, and pretty soon everyone in Europe was clamoring for it. The rest is sweet history.

Some Latino candy and sweet flavors, like chocolate, easily crossed the border because the flavor profile is familiar and acceptable to most Americans: sugary, buttery and mild. Dulce de leche, popular throughout Latin America, is one of the best examples. Originally served as a thick jam and created by slowly heating sweetened cow’s milk, this caramel-like flavor can be found everywhere from Starbucks coffee to Girl Scout cookies to Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Even Jolly Time popcorn has a recipe for dulce de leche popcorn balls!

Another sweet popular with Latinos that incorporates dulce de leche is teja. This dumpling like confection originated in the city of Ica, Peru, and is filled with dulce de leche that is mixed with fruits or nuts, or sometimes both, and coated with a thick creamy sugar shell or fondant. Teja is traditionally wrapped in decorative paper and tied at the top like a present.

Caramel-like cajeta is similar to dulce de leche, but is made with goat’s milk and is often thicker. Cajeta was created in the Mexican city of Celaya and named after the small wooden boxes that held it. Today jars and squeezable bottles of cajeta can be found in most major grocery stores.

Mazapán is the Latino cousin of marzipan, but the difference between the two goes far beyond the á and i. The Spanish tried to grow almonds in the New World, but failed miserably so they weren’t able to create the almond-paste delights taught to them by the Moors. The Spanish substituted peanuts, which grew in abundance, and created their own version of marzipan… which smells like peanut butter cookie dough and tastes like peanut butter frosting. Mazapán is eaten as a candy, used to frost cakes or made into shapes like Day of the Dead skulls.

Now what about the hard-core stuff? You know, the Latino candy, most of it Mexican, that you see in bodegas, gas stations and in big-box stores … those oddball, intense fruit and picante flavors, like tamarind, chamoy, sour orange, chile and salty dried fruit. These candies will burn your mouth, sometimes make your throat itch … but ultimately will bring a huge guilty-pleasure smile to your face.

It’s not just the flavors that are strange; the packaging is pretty out there as well. Take a look at these:

•Salsagheti: watermelon-flavored straws that look like pasta and come with a packet of sauce called gusano tamarind.
•Pelón Pelo Rico: Sweet and sour chile-flavored soft candy that’s pushed up through a small grate, making it look like oozing worms.
•Cucharita Chica: A plastic spoon loaded with a tamarind-flavored, thick, sugary candy.
•Tamalitos: Chile-flavored, heavily sugared tamarind pulp wrapped in a tiny cornhusk to resemble a tamal.
•Crayón: A sweet and picante sugary goo dispensed through twisting the bottom of the container.

Latino lollipops can also take your taste buds on a wild ride. The outside is often coated with chile powder and other flavors like lime, mango or tamarind. Beyond the firey taste, the hard candy inside is a comforting balance of sweet, familiar flavors like watermelon, cherry, strawberry or papaya.


Susan Fussell Whiteside, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Confectioners Association, says she’s not so sure mainstream America is ready to play with the fire of hot, chile-flavored candy.

“We’ve seen an increase in sugar confectionery flavored with chile, but typically from the Mexican or South American brands, and less so from U.S. brands,” Whiteside says. “While we are likely to see increased consumption of chile-flavored candies, it’s probably going to remain a niche flavor with a loyal following, like cinnamon.”

But luxury chocolate makers aren’t concerned. They’re confident that chocolate connoisseurs will love the bold, out-there flavor combinations. Whiteside concedes that may be true with products like Lindt’s Excellence Chili Dark Chocolate bar.

Boutique chocolate makers are particularly daring. Chicago-based Vosges Chocolates makes two chile-infused chocolate bars: one with ancho and chipotle chiles and another with guajillo and pasilla chiles. Oregon-based Alma Chocolate creates caramels using habanero peppers and lavender.

The big question is whether these flavors will become as ubiquitous in the mainstream market as chipotle-flavored items did in the mainstream savory market. Big candy makers seem to think so.

Hershey, Brach and Nestlé all have production facilities in Mexico, where labor costs are cheaper. But these companies also have candy lines that dip into Latino flavor profiles. For example, Hershey makes Pelón Pelo Rico, the leading spicy candy brand in Mexico, while Nestlé makes the Carlos V (remember him?) chocolate candy bar. Even Wisconsin-based Jelly Belly Candy Company has distribution facilities in Latin America and now produces chile, mango, mojito and margarita jelly beans.

Whiteside says the big trend now from companies like Mars, maker of Skittles, and Hershey, which manufactures Ice Breakers, are tropical fruit flavors. “There has even been an increase in strawberry flavors in candy,” she says. “We’ve seen more red candies labeled fresa in recent years.”

So … what’s your pleasure? Hot, spicy, sweet, sour? Go ahead … indulge. Don’t forget that  in America, there is always some candy-indulging holiday right around the corner… have you tried chile-coated candy corn… or jalapeño candy canes… or chocolate Easter eggs filled with tamarind jelly?

This article first appeared in Café Magazine.

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I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: