Laura Esquivel's recipe for a first novel proved to be a Mexican bonanza. When it was published south of the border in 1989, Like Water for Chocolate stayed on the best-seller lists for three years, outselling even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And now, in the U.S., the romantic potboiler has become the most successful Mexican import since salsa and chips.
What Esquivel has done is to take family recipes and blend them with a turn-of-the-century story about a woman and the man who loves her but marries her sister instead. She seasons the tale with a dash of feminism and her own erotic brand of magic realism. The mix seems to suit Yankee taste: Doubleday brought the book out late last year and is scrambling to get enough copies in print as it climbs the best-seller lists.
The mix continues to get spicier. Last month Miramax released the film that Esquivel and her husband, director Alfonso Arau, created from the novel. ''It is a labor of love between us, like a child almost,'' says Esquivel, who is the mother of a teenage daughter. In Mexico City the movie outsold Batman Returns and Basic Instinct, playing in theaters for almost 40 weeks. It won 10 Ariel awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars.
At home in Mexico City, Esquivel is celebrating, though her preparations are not as elaborate as the ones she customarily stages for her wedding anniversaries. On that occasion in 1992, for instance, she invited 50 guests, which meant cracking and peeling 1,600 walnuts for her famed chiles in walnut sauce (the recipe is in the novel). ''Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time,'' Esquivel says. ''But it is a good investment in your spiritual development.''
She says it makes her happy to see the book welcomed by U.S. readers. For her, giving them an old Aztec recipe for quail in rose-petal sauce is a way of offering them soul food, Mexican style.