The literature on chocolate is rich with history on the growth of chocolate prevalence in Mesoamerica and Europe. Cacao was discovered thousands of years ago, and was often combined with other ingredients to be prepared as a chocolate drink. Chocolate made the trek from Mesoamerica to Europe, where initially Spain took the reigns on making chocolate a popular and exotic beverage for European royalty. Over time, the drink became not as limited to just the upper-class, as chocolate became more commonplace in European chocolate houses (Allen 20). However, chocolate seems to have been stopped in its course to the East. Why is it that chocolate traveled from Mesoamerica to Europe, but not from Europe to Asia? While the chocolate industry exists in the East today, the introduction of chocolate in the East was severely delayed due to cultural conservatism and culinary disparities.
Until very recently, chocolate never made its way into Asian culture in the same way that it significantly permeated European culture. One argument as to why chocolate was never really recognized and accepted in the East is cultural conservatism (Coe, 316). Charles Perry, an expert on cuisines of East and Central Asia, was always puzzled as to why chocolate was unable to penetrate Asian food culture, but he suggests that cultural conservatism might be the main reason (316). Cultural conservatism for Asia is likely a suggestion that Asia has strong roots in strict rules, uniform ideologies among large regions, and a reluctance for indulgence. As chocolate was often enjoyed as a delicacy among Europeans, a conservative Asian response to chocolate in the 16th century and beyond was likely to reject it. Dr. Henry Stubbes, a widely quoted and respected authority on chocolate, believed chocolate to be an aphrodisiac (312). If this perception of chocolate was carried to Asia, then it likely only made the introduction to the conservative East more difficult. Sophie Coe, author of The True History of Chocolate, agrees with Perry’s suggestion of cultural conservatism as a roadblock for the acceptance of chocolate in Asia, but believes the subject to still be somewhat of a mystery (316). While the rejection of chocolate might have been more indirect for many Asian consumers, one account of rejection almost caused disaster for one Italian Merchant (Coe, 315). Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Carreri was traveling through the city of Smyrna, on the coast of Turkey, and writes the following about his encounter:
“Thursday the Aga of Seyde came to see me. I gave him some chocolate, but this savage had never tasted it, or perhaps he was drunk, or the tobacco smoke produced the effect; he became very angry with me, saying I had made him drink a liquid to disturb him and take away his judgement. In short, had his anger lasted it would assuredly have gone badly with me, and it would have served me right, to have regaled such a coarse person with chocolate.” (Coe, 315).
Cuisine also likely played a large role in Asia’s rejection of chocolate. Perhaps this was a reason chocolate was not ever able to permeate areas like India, Southeast Asia, or the Far East (316). For example, Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese merchants brought chocolate with them on their journeys east, but the natives had “little interest in the substance” (316). Charles Perry speculated that the bitter-sweetness of chocolate might appeal to a region of the world where nut-filled pastries are often consumed (Coe, 315). On the contrary, it seems there is nearly no correlation to be made on this front. Perry also suggested that possibly the coffee-crazed culture of the East and the way of life found around coffee houses contributed to the obstacle of establishing chocolate as a popular taste for Asian consumers (315). It appears that there was not necessarily a void that chocolate would have filled for Asian food culture, so it was easy for them to reject it.
In China, even up until the 1980s, only the most determined chocolate addict would go through the trouble of buying a chocolate bar (Allen, 33). The chocolate market was nearly nonexistent for Chinese consumers at this time, so the reward of chocolate did not usual meet the hassle of obtaining it. One news article in the early 1990s found that the Chinese eat only one bar of chocolate for every 1,000 consumed by the British (Coe, 316). Ultimately, chocolate was so foreign that the only way it was able to become a part of the average consumer’s diet was curiosity (Allen, 23). In hope of exploiting this curiosity, the Big Five chocolate companies began the difficult task of developing a presence in the East in the late 20th century. Today, the chocolate industry in many parts of Asia is growing rapidly. Advertisements in countries like Japan and India attempt to capture chocolate’s irresistible nature in order to appeal to consumers (Martin, 41). Moreover, China has recently built a Chocolate Wonderland (below) that appeals to young children in hopes of introducing the goodness of chocolate at a young age (Martin, 39). One final avenue for which chocolate is permeating Asian culture is through using it as a ritual for gift-giving (Allen, 25). Through studying the history of chocolate in Asia, it is becoming clear that the story is really just beginning.
Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York, NY, 2010. Print.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. E-book.
Martin, Carla. The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market. Cambridge, MA. 2017. Lecture.