IN Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel's heroine, Tita de la Garza, is born on the kitchen table. It is no idle metaphor. The rest of Tita's life is as tied to the alchemy that rises from that wooden slab as it is to the family that gathers around it. She becomes a conjurer of food, a sorceress; and the concoctions that issue from her cauldrons have the power to change her world: Tears cried into the cake batter set an entire wedding congregation to weeping about lost loves; rose-petal sauce from a frustrated lover's bouquet sets a naked sen orita scooting across the Mexican prairie like a feral animal in heat; honeyed confections have the power to mobilize revolutions.

We are, according to Esquivel, sentimental and passionate creatures, forever simmering behind complacent exteriors, as ready to explode into the fullness of life as the boiling water into which we drop chocolate. Esquivel's novel has become something of a media sensation, beginning as a bestseller in Mexico, re-emerging as an enormously popular film, and subsequently catapulting to success in 24 languages around the world. Just honored with the American Booksellers Book of the Year Award for 1994 (Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County won it last year), Like Water for Chocolate has sold almost one million copies in hardcover since its publication in English in 1991 -- a phenomenal amount for a work in translation. In some American cities, the book has not only topped bestseller lists, it has competed against itself in English and Spanish editions. The movie is the highest-grossing foreign language film in the history of American cinema. Born in 1950, Esquivel grew up in a modest, lower-middle-class home in a quiet suburb of Mexico City. Her father was a telegraph operator, her mother a typical Mexican wife, absorbed in the lives of their children and in the rituals of their home. Esquivel's grandmother, her link to the past, lived in an old house across the street. To get from her dining room to the kitchen, one had to pass through a chapel. To this day, Esquivel recalls her grandmother's traditions by erecting little altars of roses and incense in hotel rooms wherever she goes. Esquivel's father was a natural storyteller. He would weave tales for his children incessantly, encouraging them to invent their own elaborate plots and record them on tape. Esquivel derived great pleasure from such pastimes, and, recognizing her gift for oral narrative, decided to make a career working with children. She attended the Escuela Normal de Maestros, Mexico's national teachers' college, and went on to teach kindergarten and supervise young people's theater groups. Her first marriage produced her 18-year-old daughter, Sandra, whom she counts as her closest friend. In the late '70s she met and married Alfonso Arau, a bit actor in dozens of Hollywood pictures, including "Romancing the Stone" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." As Arau tried his hand at film production in Mexico, Esquivel founded a children's theater, wrote plays, and began writing film scripts for television soap operas. In 1988, with no particular encouragement, she sat down and wrote the manuscript for Like Water for Chocolate. It was her first novel. The book was published to instant acclaim in Mexico, and Esquivel decided to fashion it into a screenplay. Within two years, Arau had transformed Like Water for Chocolate into a film. For all her soft-spoken modesty, Esquivel proceeded to become something of a hemispheric phenomenon. Yet she seems incapable of grandiosity. "It wasn't books that inspired me to write," she says. "For me inspiration was simple, immediate: I got it from eating, dancing, talking. I got it from life lived, things touched, from sensuality, from love of life, from our irrefutable connection to the earth." Although she attributes much of her success to her marriage, Esquivel has recently divorced Arau. The split has not been easy. "Never mind," she says, "life goes on." Tending her mother and father with herbal infusions and culinary delights that have passed through the family for generations, Esquivel says she looks to the future with relish. She means that quite literally: She is hard at work on a novel about opera which is set in the year 2200. Knowing Esquivel, however, we can be sure that love will fuel its soul.

PHOTO, LAURA ESQUIVEL. JERRY BAUER