What is Mayan or Aztec chocolate?

I am proud to say that I contributed to the 58 million pounds of chocolate purchased by Americans last week.

As I browsed rows of beautifully packaged chocolates, I, and probably millions of other shoppers, often came across chocolate bars like this or drink mixes like this. So-called “Mayan” or “Aztec” chocolates, with tantalizing descriptions hearkening back to ancient traditions: “Seductive cinnamon, pasilla chile and warming cayenne bedded in dark chocolate”; “Discover the rich flavors of ancient Mexico!” Time and time again, the terms “Aztec” and “Maya” signified cinnamon, spice, and history.

Fig 1: Chuao Chocolatier’s Spicy Maya chocolate. Chuao makes a variety of bars, each named for its flavorings.

But these descriptions are misleading. While it’s true that the Maya and Aztecs put chilli in their chocolate from the start, it was the Spanish who were the first to begin incorporating cinnamon and black pepper. In terms of both texture and flavor, the chocolate that the Maya and Aztec traditionally enjoyed was a far cry from the stuff sold in most chocolateries today.

Specifically, chemical and hieroglyphic evidence indicates that the Classic Maya (c. 250-900 AD) most often took chocolate as a hot, foamed liquid (Coe & Coe). To prepare these drinks, the Maya would grind roasted cacao nibs, optionally with roasted grains (usually maize) and possibly a plant that acted as a foaming agent, and incorporate hot water. Finally, they would pour the liquid from one vessel at a height into a larger one resting on the ground, causing the chocolate to raise a beautiful foam that they considered the most valuable part of the drink. Sometimes, they incorporated flavorings like vanilla, chilli, or the native ear flower, shown below, which Europeans could only agree was “spicy.”

Fig 2: Ear flower, used throughout Mesoamerica as one of the most popular spices of chocolate. European sources compare the flavor to nutmeg, allspice, black pepper, and cinnamon, among other spices. Perhaps “spicy” is the best way to summarize (Coe & Coe 88).

The Aztecs, who rose in the 1200s and dominated Mexico until the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s, traditionally prepared chocolate very similarly: they too ground cacao multiple times into increasingly finer crumb, and incorporated water and optionally maize, foaming agents, and spices, strained, and poured the mixture from vessel to vessel to create the treasured foam. But in contrast with the hot drinks preferred by the Classic Maya, the Aztecs took chocolate cold or at room temperature. Moreover, the Aztecs incorporated a far larger array of flavorings: honey, green vanilla, achiote or annato, mecaxochitl (string flower), yolloxochitl (heart flower) of the Magnolia genus, the elongated stalk of hoja santa, rose-fragranced izquixochitl (popcorn flower), and allspice, among others, as well as the vanilla, achiote, and ear flower used by the Maya (Coe & Coe 87, Presilla 19).

But with the Conquest, Aztec recipes soon evolved along Spanish tastes. Chocolate in its native Aztec form–dark, bitter, cold, and strangely spiced sludge–seemed “more a drink for pigs” to the sweet-toothed Europeans like Girolamo Benzoni (Coe & Coe 110). Instead, the Spanish began drinking hot chocolate, sweetened with sugar and spiced instead with Old World familiarities such as cinnamon, sugar, or black pepper. By 1569, when Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún completed his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España documenting all aspects of New Spanish life including chocolate consumption, Aztec peoples had begun to chocolate hot and use Old World spices as well as their traditional New World ones (Presilla 19). Furthermore, to create foam, some Aztecs now whipped air into their drink using a molinillo, a grooved wooden whisk invented by the Spanish settlers, rather than pouring from a height.

In the ensuing decades, these new Spanish influences diffused throughout Mesoamerica. For example, a 17th-century post-Conquest Mayan-Spanish dictionary documents beating to create foam. Yet, the recipes in the dictionary remained highly similar if not identical to the Classic ones: the age-old chacau haa of water and chocolate; saca, a Classic gruel prepared from cooked maize, water, and cacao, and a special-occasion drink called tzune made of cacao and maize, with sapote seeds for foaming (Coe & Coe 61).

Even in the present, The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, known for their stubborn adherence to tradition, still grind roasted cacao with various plant foaming agents, incorporating water, mixing into corn gruels, and beating with a molinillo to produce the treasured froth—again producing the classic Mesoamerican recipe with a Spanish-originated tool. On the other hand, the contemporary Maya in the highlands of Guatemala have diverged farther from traditional ways. Batido, one of their most popular drinks, uses a teaspoonful of flavored ground cacao paste mixed with hot water, where the paste can contain native flavorings such as vanilla, achiote, or ear flower, as well as Spanish-originated ingredients like sugar, black pepper, cinnamon, rice, or black pepper (Coe & Coe 61-63).

Hence, chocolate flavorings originated by the Maya and Aztec never appear in Euro-American chocolate products, while the flavorings commonly labeled as “Maya” or “Aztec” are certainly not Mayan or Aztec in origin. One could argue that they are Spanish flavors, sometimes used in Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes, and that “Spicy Spanish” would be a more accurate label for that seductive cinnamon-studded chocolate bar up top. It is not even clear whether it is appropriate to toss around the labels of “Maya” or “Aztec” when discussing most modern-day chocolate bars. The similarity between our sugary solid chocolate and the frothed drinks of the Aztecs and Mayans is their use of ground cacao nibs, but it is neither the Maya nor the Aztec but their ancestors of another millennia before who discovered that brilliant, complex technique of harvesting, fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao for chocolate. As it stands, there is little that is characteristically Mayan or Aztec about our chocolate.

Undoubtedly, many chocolatiers are aware of the history of chocolate yet still choose to market spicy cinnamon-studded bars as Aztec or Mayan at the price of distorting the truth. After all, exotic labels do evoke historical weight, mystery, and excitement. They’re an excellent marketing tactic. Hopefully, they also encourage more people to learn about the history of chocolate, the food of the gods.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. London.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Fig. 1: http://chuaochocolatier.com/chocolate-bars/bars/spicy-maya.html

Fig. 2: http://www.maya-ethnobotany.org/images-mayan-ethnobotanicals-medicinal-plants-tropical-agriculture-flower-spice-flavoring/cymbopetalum-penduliflorum-orejuela-ear-flower-images.php



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