Chocolate as Food in Mesoamerica

Julia Naumowicz

08 March, 2017

Nicholas Paskert

Chocolate, Culture, and The Politics of Food

The Discovery of Chocolate as Used in Food in Ancient Mesoamerica

Of all the discoveries in the New World, the one that has seen the most monumental influence over the development of the Americas as well as Europe and the rest of the world has been the cacao tree. Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree, is a very exacting plant that requires the most specific growing conditions, found originally only in a very small part of equatorial South America but rediscovered in certain regions of Africa for the purpose of large cacao plantations. The effort that goes into cultivating cacao lends to its value as a unit of currency in the ancient world. When Christopher Columbus wrote during his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, he made note of an encounter with a native tribe of indigenous Americans in a large dugout canoe. In this entry he describes the contents of the longboat, including “many of those almonds which in New Spain [Mexico] are used for money(Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. p109. Print.).” He mentioned the natives’ reverence for these “almonds”, remarking that “when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen(109).” It can be noted that Columbus was not aware of the existence of cacao itself, as he refers to them in his memoirs as almonds.

When Carl von Linné coined the scientific name for the cacao tree in 1753, more than two hundred years after the discovery both of the cacao tree and of the Mesoamerican civilizations which cultivated it, he settled on Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is Greek, meaning The Food of the Gods, mentioned in religious carvings dating back to the Olmecs (Coe 39). Still, it was believed in the anthropological community for decades that the classic Maya and Aztecs did not use cacao as food. The general perspective by historians regarding the ancient Mesoamerican attitude towards cacao was that the bitter bean was too valuable to be eaten by common folk. It was a special luxury and a symbol of wealthy extravagance, cherished by the noble class as well as warriors and the traveling merchants of the Aztec empire, who would frequently be met with violence on the road due to the value of their cargo and so were considered somewhat of a class of warriors themselves (Coe 98).

The mendicant Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded the preparation of cacao water, or cacahuatl, in his General History of The Things of New Spain, an encyclopedia written partly in Nahuatl, the native language of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, and partly in Spanish. The drink is typically roasted cacao nibs that are finely ground in a metate, or grinding stone, mixed with ground maize, then stirred into water; the chocolate seller would then stand upright and pour the cacao water from one vessel to another, gradually producing a bubbling froth. At the same time cacao would be ground up with maize and other seeds, then compressed into a thin wafer that would be put in Aztec soldiers’ food rations (98).

After the Spanish conquest of the New World, beginning in Central America and spreading both north and south, the use of so-called “new world” spices, such as allspice and vanilla, were being introduced to common Old World spices such as black pepper and basil in creative new culinary inventions. The most popular of this is the mole sauce, a rich marriage of savory and sweet with a signature heat that pairs well with most meats and other savory dishes. Much like the meztiso people who were originally credited with inventing this sauce, the mole is considered to be the first blend of Spanish and Nahuatl customs into a new culture of itself. For decades academics believed that it was the meztiso population of the newly established state of Mexico that first mixed cacao with food, however new studies have proven that cacao was eaten as part of dishes as early as 450 CE (Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. p15. Print.).

During an excavation of the Copan ruins in Honduras in 2009, researchers Cameron McNeil and Jeffrey Hurst discovered traces of theobromine in a vessel containing capsaicin, the chemical marker for capsicum peppers, and turkey bones. Theobromine was also found on a dish that had once held tamales, found in the same site (15).

Before McNeil and Hurst made their discovery, it was believed by anthropologists that cacao drinks were specifically marked by a certain set of hieroglyphs, called the Primary Standard Sequence.6168271

It has been long established that the presence of the Primary Standard Sequence would indicate the presence of cacao in a drinking vessel, because the drinking of cacao water, or cacahuatl, was a sacred rite reserved for the Aztec elite as well as those soon to be sacrificed. The Primary Standard Sequence is a formula of Classic or at times post-Classic Mayan hieroglyphs, the first few pictures describe the shape of the vessel and dedicating the vessel itself, either to a
patron or to the gods, then the middle of the Sequence describes the contents of the vessel, and the final few glyphs were a series of noble titles (Coe, p45). It was David Stuart, an expert on Mayan hieroglyphics, who discovered that the symbol in Classic and post-Classic Mayan for cacao was a fin or comb and a fish, with the comb indicating ka-, which, combined with the fin of the fish beside it, becomes kaka- with the symbol for –following it (45) When the Primary Standard Sequence was identified, only then was a drinking 688_02_2vessel or liquid storage vessel sent off for chemical testing. The presence of theobromine, an alkaloid closely related to caffeine, would determine whether or not cacao was drunk out of a particular vessel. With McNeil and Hurst’s discovery, more and more items are being tested for cacao residue (Presilla 15).

In the modern world, cacao is most commonly consumed in the form of sweetened chocolate bars, mixed with palm oil rather than cocoa butter in order to maximize profits. When it comes to savory dishes, the mole sauces enjoyed by Mexico’s ancestors has remained largely unchanged, but there are also subtle regional variations as well as personal touches which vary from household to household.

The first recipe which will be explored has been found was told to Sahagún in this manner, speaking of the cacahuatl sellers in the streets:

She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water, sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, make it dry, pours water into it, stirs water into it (Coe 98)


Well-made cacahuatl was cherished by the upper class, who would serve it at parties. At times it would be mixed with other spices, such as vanilla or black pepper, or the ever popular chipotle chili.

-Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “How The Aztecs Made Chocolate.” The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 84. Print.

The first mole sauce to be presented is the reimagination of the turkey dish in which McNeil and Hurst first discovered cacao’s use as an ingredient in Mayan cuisine.


  • 9 ancho chiles (4 ounces), stemmed and seeded
  • 11 pasilla chiles (4 ounces), stemmed and seeded
  • 12 mulato chiles (4 ounces), stemmed and seeded
  • 1 large white onion, unpeeled
  • 1 medium head of garlic, unpeeled
  • 1 (one inch) stick true cinnamon (soft Ceylon cinnamon, sold as canela in Hispanic markets)
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon aniseed
  • 1 medium-sized corn tortilla
  • ½ cup (about 2 ounces) dry-roasted peanuts
  • ½ cup (about 2 ounces) blanched sliced almonds
  • ½ cup (about 2 ounces) hulled green pumpkin seeds
  • ½ cup (about 2 ounces) sesame seeds
  • ⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil from Arbequina olives or freshly rendered lard
  • 1 medium-sized ripe plantain, peeled and cut into thick slices
  • ⅓ cup (about 2 ounces) pitted prunes
  • ½ cup (about 2 ounces) dark raisins
  • 3 ounces dark chocolate, preferably El Rey Bucare (58.5% cacao), Askinosie Soconusco (75% cacao), an artisanal Mexican chocolate, or Ibarra brand table chocolate
  • ¼ to ⅓ cup (about 2 ounces) grated Latin American brown loaf sugar (piloncillo), muscovado sugar, or packed dark brown sugar, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Well-flavored chicken broth

To roast the chiles

Wipe [the chiles] clean with a damp cloth. Heat a large griddle, comal, or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Dry-roast the chiles on the griddle in about 6 batches, allowing about 1 minute on each side and pressing them down with a spatula. Transfer them to a large bowl as they are done; cover with about 4 cups warm water and leave them to soak for about 20 minutes. Drain and reserve 1 cup of the soaking liquid

For the rest of the sauce

Dry-roast the onion and the whole head of garlic on the griddle, stirring occasionally, until blackened and blistered, about 8 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Lightly dry-roast the cinnamon, black peppercorns, and aniseed (do not scorch). Frind them to a fine powder om a spice mill or a coffee mill and set aside.

Lightly toast the tortilla on the griddle, allowing about 30 seconds per sidel set aside. Dry-roast the peanuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds, stirring or shaking the griddle, for about 1 minute. Set aside in a small bowl. Toast the sesame seeds for about 30 seconds, stirring or shaking the griddle; scrape out into the same bowl. When cool, finely grind the nuts, seeds, and tortilla in a food processor.

Heat the lard in a large 12-inch skillet over medium heat until melted. Add the plantain slices and sauté until golden brown. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towels; set aside the skillet with the fat.

Peel the cooled onion and garlic, chop the onion coarsely, and set aside. Combine all of the roasted ingredients, plantain slices, prunes, and raisins in a large bowl or pot with the reserved chile soaking liquid. Working in 3 or more batches, process the mixture in a blender or food processor to make a purée, adding more chile soaking liquid as needed if the mixture is too thick to process easily. Repeat until all has been processed.

Heat the preserved olive oil or lard in the skillet over medium heat until fragrant. When it ripples, as the purée and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes.

If you are planning to use the paste immediately, dilute it by stirring in chicken broth until it is the consistency of thin tomato sauce. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but the consistency will be much silkier if you fore the thinned mixture through a fine-mesh sieve by pushing with a wooden spoon. If you are not using it immediately, cool the mole paste to room temperature, transfer to storafe containers, and pour a thin film of melted lard over the surface to help keep it from spoiling. Seal tightly and store it in a cool place or the refrigerator. It will keep well for several months.

  • “Xalapa-Style Mole (Mole Xalapeño).” The New Taste of Chocolate. Maricel E. Presilla. 193-95. Print.

Below is a video found on YouTube of a modern Steak with Chocolate recipe, found on the Phantom Gourmet’s channel:

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
  • “Chocolate Steak Recipe (Phantom Gourmet).” YouTube. N.p., 17 July 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.



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