Cacao in the Kitchen: Tracing the Origins of Cooking With Chocolate

In 1989 W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Company first applied the methods of chemical residue analysis to the study of cacao’s history in Mesoamerica. Through his testing, Hurst was able to confirm the presence of cacao—as indicated by the presence of theobromine and caffeine, unique in Mesoamerica to Theobroma cacao—in numerous Classic Mayan vessels from Guatemala; similar testing was later conducted on vessels from Belize, Honduras and elsewhere, with similar results.[1] These findings support many beliefs held by scholars about the use of cacao in Classic Mayan ritual and the translation of Mayan hieroglyphs related to cacao.

Though the vessels in question come not from the kitchen but from the tomb, the analysis also raised new questions about the ways in which early Mesoamericans prepared cacao. Two of the vessels recovered from burial chambers in Copan, Honduras, showed unexpected ingredient combinations: cacao with cooked turkey and cacao with fish. A third vessel from the burial chambers was even more perplexing. It was a platter—a vessel not suited to the liquid cacao concoctions commonly associated with the Maya and, later, the Aztecs—with cacao residue. In Mayan ceramic paintings platters of this shape are often shown filled with tamales.[2] These findings challenge the accepted development of storied modern Mesoamerican dishes—this essay will focus on mole poblano and similar ground sauces made with chocolate—and our understanding of the origin of chocolate’s use in savory, cooked foods.

640px-Mole_in_PueblaChocolate contributes to the dark color and
slight bitterness of traditional mole poblano.

Mole—the name derived from the Nahuatle word for sauce, molli—is made by grinding chiles, seeds, spices and other ingredients and cooking the paste into a complex sauce to be served with meat. Recipes for mole vary widely by region. Mole poblano, a product of Mexico’s Puebla region, incorporates chocolate and is often served with turkey. Legend traces the invention of mole poblano to Puebla in the late 17th century—variously to an accident in preparing a meal for an honored guest and to an intentional addition to please a chocolate lover—and the ingredient list is a hybrid of New and Old World ingredients.[3] But there is much in the preparation of mole that hearkens to Mayan and Aztec chocolate preparation.

640px-Mole_poblano_de_guajoloteA woman prepares mole poblano. In the
background is a stone metate, a tool traditional
in the preparation of both chocolate and mole.

To this day, making mole is a ritualized endeavor, not unlike the care scholars ascribe to the production of chocolate in Mayan times. A metate—the same tool traditionally used to grind cacao beans—is essential to the mole-making process. Between the metate and the smooth, handheld mano stone, the cook grinds into a paste many of the flavors common in Mayan or Aztec chocolate preparation. Chiles and maize are both present, the modern-day maize often taking the form of a tortilla, and long-forgotten Mesoamerican ingredients are remembered in black peppercorn and cinnamon (a combination said to taste like the popular Aztec chocolate addition hueinacaztli), aniseed (similar to mecaxochitl) and, of course, chocolate.[4] Although modern mole recipes often use slightly sweetened dark chocolate, the chocolate’s role is to add the bitterness it was known for centuries ago.[5]

Cacao scholars Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe dispute the idea that the peoples of Mesoamerica who revered cacao as the Mayans and Aztecs did would use chocolate as a flavoring in savory, cooked foods; such a use appears nowhere in the detailed accounts of Aztec cuisine The Coes also dismiss the mole origin stories that date the dish to the late 17th century Mexico. It was in Italy, they contend, that chocolate came into widespread use in savory cooked foods; the first recipes for savory cooked foods with chocolate appeared in Italy in 1680.[6] Culinary historian Rachel Laudan similarly argues against Mesoamerica as the birthplace of the techniques and ingredient combinations key to mole; she finds the dish’s origins in the cuisine of medieval Islam, transmitted to Mesoamerica by the Spanish in the generations after their arrival and later modified with New World ingredients.[7] But culinary historian Maricel Presilla, wrestling with Hurst’s analysis, suggests that the Mayans and Aztecs may have created “proto-mole” of cacao, chiles and other ingredients.[8] Further research of this theory could trace a far longer history for chocolate’s use in savory, cooked foods.

[1] Cameron L. McNeil, W. Jeffrey Hurst and Robert J. Sharer, “The Use and Representation of Cacao During the Classic Period at Copan, Honduras,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, ed. Cameron L. McNeil (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.; W. Jeffrey Hurst, “The Determination of Cacao in Samples of Archaeological Interest,” in McNeil, 105 and 112-113.
[2] McNeil, “The Use and Representation of Cacao” in McNeil, 234-236.
[3] Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London:Thames & Hudson, 2013), 212-214.
[4] Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 87.
[5] For an example of a modern mole poblano recipe, see Diana Kennedy’s. Diana Kennedy, Essential Cuisines of Mexico (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2000), 324-326.
[6] Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 212-114.
[7] Rachel Laudan, “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection,” AramcoWorld, May/June 2004, accessed February 18, 2016,
[8] Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised (Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2009), 15.


Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Elelicht. Mole in Puebla. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed February 18, 2016.

Kennedy, Diana. Essential Cuisines of Mexico. 3rd ed. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2000.

Laudan, Rachel. “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection.” AramcoWorld, May/June 2004. Accessed February 18, 2016.

McNeil, Cameron L., ed. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2009.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Tochapán, Palmarito. Mole poblano de guajolote. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed February 18, 2016.

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