THE IDEA FOR LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, which became a No. 1 bestseller in Laura Esquirel's native Mexico, came to her while she was making dinner. "Cooking the recipes that had been passed down to me from my family took me back to the smells of my grandmother's cooking and the smells of my grandmother herself," she says. (What the madeleine did for Proust, molés do for Esquirel.) "I thought it would be interesting to bring that phenomenon to literature. Each of us has a history, either personal or national, locked inside us, and the key to unlocking that history is food. In the same way that someone explains to someone how to make a dish, one could narrate a love story."
Esquirel, 42, grew up in Mexico City and still lives there. She taught school before becoming an actress in children's theater, a playwright and a writer for a TV series similar to Sesame Street. The wife of an actor and director—her husband, Alfonso Arau, directed the film of Like Water for Chocolate scheduled for U.S. release next year—and the mother of a teenage daughter. Esquirel is hard at work on her next novel, a science-fiction thriller set in the year 2200. Still, her routine includes cooking three meals a day in a kitchen whose renovation was funded by the huge success of Like Water for Chocolate. "The kitchen is a magical place," she says. For Esquirel as for her heroine, what a cook puts into a dish emotionally will flavor it as surely as the physical ingredients. "A person's energy works in tandem with the chemical changes that the ingredients undergo," she says. Mentioning chilies in walnut sauce as a particular specialty, Esquirel calls herself "a good cook." As good as the novel's culinary genius, Tita? "Yes," she says. "But I don't have her magical results."