In the back bay of Boston there is an establishment called Max Brenner Chocolate Bar and Restaurant1. Their mission: to “create a new chocolate culture worldwide”1. They have locations in seven countries, and five major US cities, and are very popular1. One look at the menu of this restaurant is enough to know that they are not creating a new chocolate culture. Rather they are feeding the mass misconception that chocolate is for dessert and not dinner. Not a single item on their food menu offers a dish with chocolate as a savory ingredient1.
In the last two centuries, since the invention of mass produced chocolate candies, chocolate has been seen exclusively as a sweet or dessert. However, in recent years that has all begun to change. Instead of being stuck in the narrow minded approach to chocolate as sweet we are now beginning to embrace the versatility and the savory side of chocolate in our culinary culture. This recent ‘trendiness’ in savory chocolate began in the world of the gourmet but has recently begun to trickle down to the world of home cooks as well. Changing attitudes in regards to health and the negative effects of sugar, a revival and focus on authentic and traditional recipes and media coverage of this luxurious product have facilitated this expansion in the use of chocolate. By looking at the history of savory chocolate and the contemporary presentation of savory chocolate, these patterns become evident and an entirely new realm of culinary possibilities becomes accessible for everyone from culinary icons to even the most basic home cook.
Chocolate has a long culinary history, from ancient Mesoamerica to Renaissance Europe to modern America. In each new place, chocolate has transformed to fit local tastes, desires, and ingredients. Original chocolate dishes in Mesoamerica were incredibly varied, but the most common dish was a beverage made from a sort of ground cacao bean paste3. Made during the period of the Late Maya this dish combined water, cacao paste, and maize (corn) to make a savory sort of gruel3. This dish, called saca, was the foundation of chocolate cuisine and most other dish were rifts off this original3. By adding spices, herbs, or flavors like vanilla and honey, the Maya were able to create a myriad of beverages for all occasions3. Depending on the ingredients, each beverage would be served at specific events or gatherings3. By adding sapote seeds, the Maya created a drink called tzune, which (based on depictions and accounts) was served at only very special occasions3. On the flip side of this, one of the most common recipes was Batido3. The ground cacao was made into a paste and vanilla, black pepper, seeds and other herbs were added, along with achiote which gave the drink a distinctive red color that appears in several accounts of exploration encounters3. Through the addition of honey and sugar (once the Europeans introduced cane sugar to the New World), the Maya and other Mesoamerican societies consumed chocolate that was sweetened3. However, these particular substances were rare, which meant that in most circumstances Mesoamerican chocolate culture was centered around savory beverage concoctions. There may have been a few exceptions to this beverage preparation, as some believe that the Maya used chocolate in stews and as sauces with meats7. We all know about the classic mole sauce that came a little later, but in A New Taste of Chocolate, by Maricel Presilla, there is a recipe for a Maya turkey stew with cacao and chile7. Though there are no accounts of the original recipe, this one is created from a recipe that has been handed down for generations, and then stripped of any old world ingredients that it inherited over the years7. Through writings, recipes, and depictions, we are able to see that early cultures in central America used chocolate in a very different way than we are used to; there is no record of chocolate every being used as a consumable on its own, nor being paired with meat or other food3. It seems to have been contained to the realm of a culturally significant beverage or gruel that was itself very versatile.
Chocolate was introduced into Europe in the 1500’s3. Over the next few centuries, the way chocolate was eaten would be shaped by new tastes, ingredients, and technology to create the culture that we know today. There is a common misconception, or perhaps just a version of history that is often told, that Europeans took Mesoamerican chocolate traditions and improved upon them in their own culture. However, in Tasting Empire by Marcy Norton, it becomes clear that Europeans originally did their best to emulate the Maya and Aztec traditions that they had unwittingly grown a taste for through assimilation into the central American culture6. This meant that “there was little difference between the types of chocolate consumed by creoles, Indians, and Iberians” in the first few years of chocolate’s introduction to Spain6. In the years and centuries that followed, small changes would bring about an entirely new chocolate culture in Europe. There are even recipes dating from the 1700s in Spain that pair chocolate and almonds with prawns and lobster7! This shows that in the beginning, Europeans used chocolate extensively as a savory ingredient. In Catalan (Spanish) cooking, chocolate even became a part of their central herb mixture called picada, with chopped nuts and herbs to add flavor and texture to all sorts of dishes7. The industrial revolution and mechanization of production of chocolate would change the way western culture treated chocolate for the next few centuries. This began in earnest in 1828 with Van Houten’s invention of the hydraulic press to separate chocolate from cacao butter3. This and subsequent innovations in technology allowed chocolate to become a substance that people came to expect to be served as a solid foodstuff and not just a beverage3. This would be important for chocolate’s place in savory contexts, but the transition to chocolate as sweet had already been made. When chocolate did become solid, it also became practically limited to the realm of sweet, sugary treats.
Despite big business take over of chocolate culture and a narrowing of chocolate’s role in the 20th century, today we are experiencing a culinary expansion among the gourmet food world that is seeking to explore the greater food possibilities of chocolate. This small renaissance has its roots in a number of movements. The first movement is a pushback against the processed food industry and the simultaneous research that has been released about chocolate’s potential health benefits. Many studies have come out in recent years about the negative effects of processed sugar consumption. For example, a study published in 2007 by the American Society of Clinical Nutrition, linked sugar to the growing epidemic of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease5. The case against sugar has continued to grow with mounting evidence being presented on the national stage through and films such as Fed Up. To add to the demise of sweet treats and what chocolate has become, studies about the health benefits of cacao have made consumers more eager to try chocolate in a different, more nutritious way. In a 2013 report released by Nutrition and Health, researchers found that antioxidants and flavonoids in chocolate could have implications for improved cardiovascular health10. To cater to these changing tastes, increased consumer awareness, and overall thirst for new flavors, the gourmet community has begun to use chocolate in a whole new way, different in many ways from anything that has been seen before.
With changing attitudes about chocolate, along with advances in general culinary technology and knowledge, the gourmet food industry has become much more adventurous in its uses of chocolate. Much of this exploration has begun to trickle down to the more general public as well. We have begun to see savory chocolate as a sort of trendy new flavor that adventurous eaters and chefs are eager to try.
For instance, Saveur (a gourmet food and wine magazine) published an article in February of this year highlighting 12 savory chocolate recipes4. This is just the most recent article in a stream of columns and writings in food magazines, newspapers, and gourmet blogs within the last two or three years that focuses on chocolate as savory. “It’s for more than brownies and cakes”, as a subheading, this suggests a general trend that seeks to look at chocolate differently and use it in new ways4. The recipes include everything from sauces to stews, including the most widely known chocolate dish, the mole4. No discussion of chocolate as savory is complete without mention of mole. Mole is a group of traditional sauces originally from Mexico3. Known for its deep, complex flavors it is most often paired with meat, and is one of the oldest uses of savory chocolate that we know of today7. Though its exact origins are a little fuzzy, mole has become an icon of savory chocolate today3. In the Saveur magazine recipe, three different types of chiles are combined with an extensive list of herbs and Mexican chocolate to create a traditional “puebla-style” mole4. Mole has survived the test of time and has been adapted to fit modern culture, acting as the ultimate savory chocolate recipe.
But today’s recipes are not limited to central American cuisine. In an episode of the popular food network cooking show, Giada at Home, viewers are given a recipe for Chocolate fettucine with peas and pancetta2. As Chef Giada introduces her dish, her tone is almost imploring, reminding the home cooks that this is a savory recipe2. The final product looks incredible, but it is very likely something that most home cooks have never seen, let alone made, before. Chocolate pasta? It seems to defy our sensibilities and notions about the place and order of chocolate in food. But its presence as a featured home recipe on the Food Network shows a shift; rather than being entirely relegated to gourmet food like Saveur, chocolate is working its way into the fabric of savory dishes for the general public. This unprecedented change highlights the growing expansion of food horizons.
Chocolate is an incredibly versatile ingredient, as seen from its uses in everything from sauces to pasta. But Chef Jacques Torres (An MOF collared chef from France) takes chocolate even further8. In a post on the very successful food site Serious Eats, three chefs are highlighted and interviewed about how they use chocolate as a savory ingredient in their restaurants8. Torres, uses cocoa nibs to crust salmon and then cooks the salmon in a pan of melted cocoa butter8. He even adds cacao to alcoholic beverages in his restaurant8! Another chef on the list, Julian Medina, makes a miso sauce with dark chocolate to use over fish and pork8. Miso is a salty paste made from soybeans that is often used as a salad dressing or in soups, not something that we are accustomed to containing chocolate. But Chef Medina insists that miso and chocolate work well because it combines “salty, sweet, a little acid, a bit of savory, and a bit of spice”8.
In reading about the many ways chocolate can be used, I was inspired to try my own hand at making a savory chocolate dish. I’ve had mole and savory sauces and I really wanted to push my own boundaries. That’s when I found a recipe for White Chocolate Baba Ghannouj9. We can rationalize the use of dark chocolate in savory foods because it is more bitter than sweet, but white chocolate is coco butter and sugar, it is sweet. I have perhaps eaten baba ghannouj once or twice before this and all I could remember was the traditional Middle Eastern dish being very savory and not the slightest bit sweet. It is an eggplant puree with spices and salt, and definitely no sugar. The particular recipe that I found calls for eggplants and garlic to be charred and cooked under a broiler and then made into a puree with lemon juice, parsley, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, tahini (a ground sesame seed paste) and white chocolate9. I will admit that as I was combining all the ingredients together I was very skeptical, given my memories of the dish and how odd it seemed to put chocolate in. The first thing I noticed about the puree was its smell. The sweetness of the chocolate subtly lingered in the air. The taste was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The first notes were sweet, with the white chocolate coming through immediately. The coco butter also added a smooth, silky texture that set this baba ghannouj apart from its classic origins. As the flavor developed the tahini and lemon and smokiness of the eggplant countered the sweetness to create a complex and intriguing bite. When I had my friends try it, their initial reaction was similar to mine- it was unlike anything they had ever tasted it. After a few moments and a few more bites all of them nodded their heads and stated that they liked it. Almost addictively, as if to figure out whether they liked it or not, they all went back for more. This dish exemplifies an expanding horizon. All of us that tried this were momentarily confused by the drastic departure from familiar flavors. But once we dug in a little more we found that the chocolate added a richness and a complexity that elevated the dish, making it more exciting, and opening a world of savory chocolate possibilities.
- Brenner, Max. “Creating a New Chocolate Culture Worldwide.” Max Brenner. 2016. Web. <http://www.maxbrenner.com/>.
- Chocolate Fettuccine with Peas and Pancetta. Giada De Laurentiis. Perf. Giada De Laurentiis. Food Network; Giada at Home, 2015.
- Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
- Editors, Saveur. “12 Savory Chocolate Recipes.” Saveur3 Feb. 2016. Print.
- Johnson, Richard J., Mark S. Segal, Takahiko Nakagawa, Daniel I. Feig, Duk-Hee Kang, Michael S. Gersch, Steven Benner, and Laura G. Sanchez-Lozada. “Potential Role of Sugar (fructose) in the Epidemic of Hypertension, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition4 (2007): 899-906. Web.
- Norton, M. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review3 (2006): 660-91. Web.
- Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
- Raposo, Jacqueline. “Hey Chef, What Savory Dishes Can I Make With Chocolate?” Web log post. Serious Eats. 10 Feb. 2015. Web.
- “White Chocolate Baba Ghannouj.” Saveur11 Feb. 2103. Print.
- Watson, Ronald Ross, and Victor R. Preedy. “Chocolate in Health and Nutrition.” Ed. Adrienne Bendich and Sherma Zibadi. Human Press(2013). 1007/978-1-61779-803-0. Web.