Like Water for Chocolate is set in Northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, from about 1910-1920. Each chapter begins with a recipe in Tita’s cookbook, which has been inherited by the story’s narrator, Tita’s great-niece.
Before Tita’s birth, she cries in the womb while her mother, Elena de la Garza, is chopping onions. Her tears send “Mama Elena” into labor, and Tita is born on the kitchen table. Two days after her birth, her father, Juan de la Garza, dies of a heart attack. Mama Elena must manage the ranch, so she leaves Tita’s care to Nacha, the cook, whom Tita comes to see as her “real mother.” Unlike her older sisters, Gertrudis and Rosaura, Tita develops a deep love of cooking.
One holiday season when Tita is fifteen years old, she tells Mama Elena that a suitor, Pedro Musquiz, wants to come speak to her. Mama Elena angrily reminds Tita of the family tradition demanding the youngest daughter stay at home and care for her mother (until the mother’s death) instead of getting married. When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand, Mama Elena offers to let him marry her older daughter Rosaura instead, and Pedro agrees. That night, feeling chilled and devastated, Tita continues to crochet the wedding bedspread she had secretly been making for her potential wedding with Pedro. She remembers when she first met Pedro the year before at a holiday party, where he declared that he would love her forever.
On the night before the wedding, Tita’s tears fall into the cake batter and icing. In the receiving line after the ceremony, Pedro whispers to Tita that he is only marrying Rosaura to be closer to Tita. During the reception, everyone who eats the cake is overcome with heartbreak and sick stomachs, except for Tita. Tita, unbeknownst to herself, magically infused the cake with her repressed sadness. That night, Tita comes home to find Nacha dead, clutching a photo of her late fiancée, whom Mama Elena’s mother had sent away. Mama Elena thinks Tita poisoned the cake, and beats her so badly she is left bedridden.
A year later, Pedro and Rosaura are living at the ranch, and Rosaura is pregnant. Pedro and Tita communicate their feelings only through Tita’s cooking and Pedro’s compliments her meals. One day, Pedro brings Tita roses, and she puts them into a recipe for Quail in Rose Petal sauce. That night at the dinner table, Gertrudis is overwhelmed with sexual arousal while eating the dish. After dinner, she runs outside to shower. The heat from her body catches the shower on fire, and she runs naked into a field. In a nearby battleground, rebel captain Juan Alejandrez sees a rose-colored cloud and deserts his troop to gallop after it. He meets Gertrudis in the field and scoops her onto his horse, where they begin to make love. A week later Mama Elena learns that Gertrudis is working in a brothel outside town, and she burns Gertrudis’ birth certificate.
A few months later, the nearby town of Piedras Negras falls under siege by federal troops. Mama Elena and Chencha are in town when fighting breaks out, and they have to hide. At the ranch, Rosaura goes into labor, and Pedro leaves to get Dr. John Brown. Pedro is kidnapped by the federals, leaving only Tita with Rosaura. With no knowledge of babies, Tita prays to Nacha for help, and successfully delivers her nephew. Tita fills with unexpected love for baby Roberto. When the fighting abates, everyone returns home. Dr. Brown examines Rosaura, and is stunned by Tita’s beauty and natural skill. Rosaura is too sick to nurse, but Tita discovers she has the supernatural ability to lactate, a secret she shares only with Pedro. At Roberto’s baptism, Tita and all the guests who eat her food feel genuinely hopeful and contented, despite the chaotic state of national affairs.
One night a few weeks later, Pedro sneaks up on Tita and they passionately kiss until they hear Mama Elena call for Tita. A few days later, Mama Elena sends Rosaura, Pedro and Roberto to live in San Antonio. Tita becomes deeply depressed.
A month later, the fighting in Piedras Negras has intensified, and food supplies are short. Rebel troops arrive at the ranch, asking for food. The captain, unbeknownst to Mama Elena, is the same Juan Alejandrez who carried Gertrudis away. Unsatisfied with the live chickens Mama Elena offers them, one of the men suggests they invade the cellar. Mama Elena responds by shooting the chickens dead out of the soldier’s hand and threatening to kill the captain. Juan declares his admiration for Mama Elena. His men hunt all of the pigeons on the dovecote and depart.
A few days later, Chencha brings news from San Antonio that baby Roberto has died. Tita accuses Mama Elena of killing Roberto by sending him away. Mama Elena punches Tita, breaking her nose. Tita climbs onto the dovecote and stays the night there, feeding worms to an orphaned baby pigeon until it dies. The next day, Mama Elena orders Dr. John Brown to take Tita to an insane asylum. Instead, he takes her to his home, where he lives with his young son Alex.
At his home, the widowed Dr. Brown takes care of Tita and nurses her back to health. Refusing to speak, she spends all day crocheting her bedspread. In John’s laboratory, she has visions of his grandmother, Morning Light, a Kikapu doctor who cured diseases with botanical remedies. John tells Tita about Morning Light’s philosophy that everyone is born with a box of matches inside them. To light their inner matches on fire, each person must find the right person to love and the right kinds of experiences to kindle strong emotion. If the matches are all lit at once, a bright tunnel appears and the soul leaves the body. Over the next several months, Tita’s health and spirits improve, and she begins to speak again.
A few months later, Chencha appears at John’s house with Ox-Tail soup for Tita. She brings a letter from Gertrudis, in which she explains that she is working at a brothel to “quench the fire inside” her. Tita tells Chencha she will never return to the ranch. That night, John tells Tita that he plans to propose to marry her.
After Chencha returns home, a group of bandits attack the ranch and rape her. Mama Elena tries to protect her, but the bandits knock her out. Tita returns to the ranch to care for Mama Elena, who was left paralyzed by the incident. Tita sends Chencha away to live in town so she can recover away from Mama Elena. All of Tita’s cooking tastes bitter to Mama Elena, who is convinced that Tita is poisoning her. To wash away Tita’s “poison,” Mama Elena begins secretly taking Ipecac syrup to induce vomiting. A few weeks later, she dies from overuse of the syrup.
While dressing Mama Elena for her wake, Tita discovers a secret box of letters from a man named Jose Treviño. She learns that he was Mama Elena’s childhood sweetheart and that Mama Elena’s parents separated the two because Jose was a mulatto (a child of both Spanish and African descent). Even after marrying Tita’s father, Mama Elena continued the affair, which resulted in Gertrudis’ birth.
Pedro and Rosaura attend the funeral, and thereafter return to live at the ranch. Rosaura gives birth to another child, Esperanza. After the delivery, John performs a surgery to save Rosaura’s life that involves removing her uterus. Chencha returns, along with Jesús, her former childhood sweetheart and now husband. Following the mourning period for Mama Elena, John officially proposes to Tita and she accepts, determined to learn to love him as she loves Pedro.
John travels to the United States to retrieve his Aunt Mary for the wedding. One night while he is away, Pedro catches Tita alone, and the two have sex for the first time, creating magical fireworks. Tita becomes wracked with guilt, and soon realizes she is pregnant.
A month later, Gertrudis returns home along with an entire rebel troop over whom she is now general. At her side is Juan Alejandrez, who she reunited with after joining the army. The ghost of Mama Elena appears to Tita and hurls curses at her. During Gertrudis’ weeklong celebratory stay, she comforts Tita and soothes her guilt. She makes Tita tell Pedro about her pregnancy, and Pedro suggests they run away together. When Mama Elena’s ghost returns, Tita demands that she leave her in peace. Tita’s belly deflates, and it turns out she isn’t pregnant after all. The ghost turns into a firecracker that catches Pedro on fire in the middle of a party. Seeing Pedro reach for Tita in front of all the guests, Rosaura shuts herself in her room. The next day, Gertrudis and her troop leave for battle. Rosaura warns Tita never to humiliate her in public again, and threatens to keep Esperanza away from her. Chencha has a baby.
When John returns, Tita tells him that she has lost her virginity to another man and can’t marry him. John tells Tita that he doesn’t care, and asks only that she decide which man will make her happy. Tita decides to stay with Pedro. Rosaura refuses to let Pedro divorce her, however. The three create an agreement to live together peacefully and share Esperanza’s upbringing, so long as Pedro and Tita keep their relationship a secret.
As Esperanza grows up, Tita spends many hours with her in the kitchen, teaching her about life, love, and cooking. Many years later, Esperanza is reunited with John’s son Alex at a party. They fall in love, and Alex asks for Esperanza’s hand. Rosaura refuses, determined to continue the tradition of demanding that the youngest daughter devote her life to her mother. Pedro and Tita oppose Rosaura, and the three enter into a bitter fight. Rosaura dies a few weeks later of acute indigestion.
A year later, Esperanza and Alex marry. At the wedding, everyone gets suddenly aroused after eating Tita’s chiles in walnut sauce. Everyone rushes off to find a place to make love. Left alone, Tita and Pedro have the most passionate sex of their lives. A bright tunnel appears before each of them. Pedro enters it, but Tita resists. Realizing that Pedro is dead, Tita begins eating candles and recalling every moment with Pedro. The tunnel reappears. Pedro awaits her at the end. Their bodies catch fire, creating a huge volcanic explosion that leaves the soil fertile forever after. Tita’s cookbook is all that remains, an heirloom Esperanza later passes onto her daughter, the novel’s narrator.