I remember when I first learned about spicy chocolate bars. About 12 years ago I found a Vosges Haute Chocolate dark chocolate chili bar at Whole Foods. I also heard about the movie Chocolat with Juliette Binoche. I quickly put two and two together, rented the movie, and with my grandmother, proceeded to savor chocolate in a way I never had before. You can’t really gobble down chocolate with a kick to it. It satisfies more of the senses and begs to be savored – held on the tongue until it melts and not chewed. While Vosges is now flanked by many other fine chocolatiers in creating spicy chocolates, I was amazed to find out that early Mesoamerican cultures did not consume chocolate in this fashion at all. Even though many companies who offer spiced chocolate try to make claims that their chocolate is made in traditional Mayan or Aztec ways, it wasn’t until after the Spanish brought cacao back to baroque Europe that refined and sugar sweetened chocolate bar as we now know it now came to be common place.
If chocolate as we know it did not exist back in Mayan and Aztec culture, why do we link spiciness and chocolate at all? Let’s start with the Mayans. Even though the Olmec civilization has been discovered to be the first users of cacao beans from the cacao tree, the recipes and evidence we have from Mayan culture shows they “brought chocolate making to a high art”(Presilla p. 12). Everyone drank cacao in Mayan civilization. There were fancier fired vessels that only the upper class had access to but gourds were mainly used to drink cacao. Cacao fruit pulp was drunk “in both fresh and fermented forms”(Presilla p. 12) and cacao beans were mixed with various herbs, grains and fruits as another type of drink. Achiote (also known as annatto) paste was commonly added to ground cacao beans and gave their frothy drinks a bright red color. There was also “ear flower” a blossom that gave cacao a spicy and fragrant taste in addition to vanilla, honey, allspice, maguey sap, and yes, dried chiles that were added to water and ground cacao paste.
The other dish that Mayans consumed on a regular basis as more food than drink was a corn gruel called atole. Either ground lime-treated corn or fresh corn was mixed with water, cacao, ground seeds and spices like allspice. Another way cacao was eaten with food was possibly in the form of what we commonly know as mole, a spicy chocolate sauce served with protein dishes. This usage of cacao and chili peppers may have existed as far back as AD 450. Trace evidence found in tamale vessels showed evidence of cacao and capsaicin (chemical marker of hot peppers) with turkey bones (Presilla p. 15).
The Aztecs adopted many of the Mayan traditions with cacao but they put their own spin on some key aspects of its usage. The Aztecs forbade commoners to drink it and it was reserved for Aztec nobility, and the merchant class. Aztec warriors also were allowed to eat cacao but they were given small wafers or disks that were easy to travel with and then could be turned into liquid when desired. Aztecs still ate the cacao corn gruel but they reserved lower grades of cacao to add to such dishes.(Coe p.85) Many people automatically put the word “hot” before chocolate when they think of drinking the liquid concoction, and the Mayans were no different. The Aztecs however, liked theirs cool (Coe p.84). They also embellished upon the flavoring that the Mayans had added to their cacao drinks. Ground seeds like that of sapote, maize, chili, honey, allspice, achiote, vanilla, “ear flower” among other edible flowers like “string flower,” “popcorn flower” and “heart flower” were added in various combinations to make Aztec cacao drinks (Coe pp. 86-94).
When I learned of how the Aztecs and the Mayans took their cacao, I was glad to learn that refined sugar was a modern addition. Yes, both civilizations would sweeten their beverages with substances like corn, honey, and fruit nectars, but on the whole their drinks were on the tart, tangy, spicy, sour and savory side. When I fell in love with spicy chocolate, I also fell in love with that more bitter aspect of cacao. The aspect that on the whole producers have tried to hide from the modern consumer. Mass produced hocolate is often very sweet and to many that is a pleasant taste over cacao seed’s natural bitterness, but how much do we lose in terms of cacao’s complexity and nutrient properties when it is diluted with milk solids, vegetable fats and sugars? I think we lose a lot. While I’m glad there are options like the Guajillo & Chipotle Chili Super Dark Chocolate Bar from Vosges, I’m even happier there are people interested in traditional Mayan and Aztec recipes online.
Here are some top pics to check out:
If you’re interested in learning about the “true history of chocolate” further, I would highly recommend watching this video with Michael D. Coe.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.