Like Water for Chocolate is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. Each chapter is preceded by a recipe that corresponds to the action that follows. The structure of the novel suggests the tradition of women’s magazines that came into vogue during the mid-nineteenth century. These periodicals included, like Esquivel’s novel, recipes, home remedies, and, often, sentimental novels in monthly installments.
The novel takes place on a ranch in northern Mexico at the time of the Revolution. Just as the country is in a state of flux, the family must also adapt to changing times. Tita is in love with Pedro, but because she cannot be married, Pedro marries her sister, Rosaura. When Rosaura is unable to care for her newborn son, Roberto, Tita assumes all the caretaking responsibilities for the child. As the attraction between Tita and Pedro becomes increasingly evident, however, Mamá Elena orders Pedro and Rosaura to move to San Antonio. Separated from his aunt, the child dies, and Tita suffers an emotional crisis. The family doctor, John Brown, is summoned to take the girl to an asylum. Because he is in love with Tita, however, rather than complying with her mother’s request, he brings her to live with him, and she eventually recovers.
Meanwhile, the ranch has been caught in revolutionary crossfire, leaving Mamá Elena paralyzed. Tita returns home to care for her mother, but Elena remains as dictatorial as ever and dies soon after from a prolonged attack of vomiting. After Elena’s death, Pedro and Rosaura return to the ranch with a second child, Esperanza. Although Rosaura insists upon preparing her only daughter to be her caretaker, Tita teaches Esperanza the secrets of the kitchen. It is during this period that Pedro and Tita consummate their love and Tita suspects she may be pregnant. No sooner does this prove to be a false alarm than Pedro, attacked by the ghost of Mamá Elena, is seriously burned by a kerosene lamp. In the final chapter, the action of the novel shifts to several years later. Rosaura has died and her daughter, Esperanza, is marrying Alex, the son of John Brown. After the wedding guests have left, Pedro and Tita give full rein to their pleasure for the first time. Pedro dies at the moment of climax, and to join him, Tita must rekindle the flame of passion. To do so, she swallows matches, and their bodies are so inflamed at the moment of her death that the entire ranch burns. When Esperanza returns from her honeymoon, she recovers Tita’s recipe book, which her daughter, the narrator of the novel, inherits upon her death.