In a style that is epic in scope yet intensely personal in focus, Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate tells the story of Tita De La Garza, the youngest daughter in a family living in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. Through twelve chapters, each marked as a "monthly installment" and thus labeled with the months of the year, we learn of Tita's struggle to pursue true love and claim her independence. Each installment features a recipe to begin each chapter. The structure of Like Water For Chocolate is wholly dependent on these recipes, as the main episodes of each chapter generally involve the preparation or consumption of the dishes that these recipes yield. The details of additional secondary recipes are woven throughout the narrative.
Like Water For Chocolate tells the story of Tita De La Garza, the youngest daughter in a family living in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. Tita's love, Pedro Muzquiz, comes to the family's ranch to ask for Tita's hand in marriage. Because Tita is the youngest daughter she is forbidden by a family tradition upheld by her tyrannical mother, Mama Elena, to marry. Pedro marries Tita's oldest sister, Rosaura, instead, but declares to his father that he has only married Rosaura to remain close to Tita. Rosaura and Pedro live on the family ranch, offering Pedro contact with Tita. When Tita cooks a special meal with the petals of a rose given to her by Pedro, the still-fiery force of their love (transmitted through the food) has an intense effect on Mama Elena's second daughter, Gertrudis, who is whipped into a lustful state and flees the ranch in the arms of a revolutionary soldier. Meanwhile, Rosaura gives birth to a son, who is delivered by Tita. Tita treats her nephew, Roberto, as if he were her own child, to the point that she is able to produce breast milk to feed him while her sister is dry.
Sensing that Roberto is drawing Pedro and Tita closer together, Mama Elena arranges for Rosaura's family to move to San Antonio. This separation devastates Tita. A short time later, news arrives that Roberto has died, most likely due to his removal from Tita's care. The death of her nephew causes Tita to have a breakdown, and Mama Elena sends her to an asylum. Dr. John Brown, a local American doctor, takes pity on Tita and brings her to live in his house. He patiently nurses Tita back to health, caring for her physical ailments and trying to revive her broken spirit. After some time, Tita is nearly well, and she decides never to return to the ranch. No sooner has she made this choice than Mama Elena is injured in a raid by rebel soldiers, forcing Tita to return. Tita hopes to care for her mother, but Mama Elena bitterly rejects Tita's good will. She refuses Tita's cooking, claiming that it is poisoned. Not long after, Mama Elena is found dead from an overdose of a strong emetic she consumed for fear of poisoning.
The death of Mama Elena frees Tita from the curse of her birthright and she accepts an engagement proposal from John Brown, with whom she has fallen in love. In the meantime, Rosaura and Pedro have returned to the ranch and have produced a second child, Esperanza. Immediately, Pedro's presence throws into question Tita's love for John. The night that John officially asks Pedro to bless the marriage, Pedro corners Tita in a hidden room and makes love to her, taking her virginity. Soon after, Tita is certain that she is pregnant and knows that she will have to end her engagement to John. The affair between Pedro and Tita prompts the return of Mama Elena, who comes in spirit form to curse Tita and her unborn child. Tita is distraught and has no one in whom she can confide.
In the midst of Tita's despair, the long-lost Gertrudis returns to the ranch as a general in the revolutionary army, at the helm of a regiment of fifty men. Tita is overjoyed at the return of Gertrudis, who is just the companion she seeks. Gertrudis forces Tita to tell Pedro about the pregnancy. He is gladdened at the news, and he drunkenly serenades Tita from below her window. Outraged, Mama Elena's ghost returns, violently threatening Tita and declaring that she must leave the ranch. For the first time, Tita stands up to Mama Elena and, in forceful words, declares her autonomy, banishing her mother's spirit, which shrinks from an imposing presence into a tiny fiery light. As she expels the ghost, Tita is simultaneously relieved of all her symptoms of pregnancy. The light from Mama Elena's ghost bursts through Tita's window and onto the patio below where Pedro still sits, setting fire to his entire body. After rescuing Pedro, Tita is consumed with caring for him and helping him recover. John Brown returns from a trip to the United States and Tita confesses to him her relations with Pedro. John replies that he still wishes to marry her but that she must decide for herself with whom she wishes to spend her life.
Years pass, and the ranch focuses its attention on another wedding, this time between Esperanza and Alex, the son of John Brown. Rosaura has died, freeing her only daughter, Esperanza, from the stricture that had previously forbidden her, as it had Tita, from marrying. With Rosaura dead and Esperanza married, Tita and Pedro are finally free to express their love in the open. On their first night together, Tita and Pedro experience love so intense that both are led to a tunnel that will carry them to the afterlife. Tita turns back, wanting to continue in life and in love with Pedro. Once she does, she realizes that Pedro has already crossed over. Wanting desperately to be with him, Tita attempts to ignite her inner fire by eating the candles that had lit the room until they extinguished themselves at the moment of Pedro's death. When she succeeds in recreating the climate of true passion, she reenters the luminous tunnel and meets Pedro in the spirit world. The final union of their bodies and spirits sets fire to the entire ranch, and the only remnant left of their love is the recipe book in which Tita recorded her wisdom.