Chocolate Production in Historical Mesoamerica

Although millions of people around the world enjoy chocolate today, our modern conceptions of chocolate products greatly deviate from the first chocolate recipes. From the way we primarily consume chocolate today (eaten rather than drunk) to the flavors and ingredients we mix in (sugar and milk instead of maize, chillies, and flower-products), our “chocolate” would be hardly recognizable to the original chocolate makers of Mesoamerica (“History of Chocolate”, 2017). 

To understand the first chocolate recipes of Mesoamerica, we first have to understand how cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, was extracted from the Theobroma cacao tree. Theobroma cacao genetically originated in the Amazon basin of South America, but was later domesticated by the Olmec in the humid lowlands of Mexican Gulf Coast around 1000 BC (Young, 2007). The images below (a-e) depict the end products of each step in the process of producing cacao nibs (kernels). In the first step, cacao pods are cracked open, revealing the white pulp and pulp-covered cacao seeds, as pictured in image a. Although the pulp is edible, it’s the seeds at the fruit’s core that are essential for chocolate production. The next step of the process is fermenting the seeds for about 5 days, as shown in image b, which lowers the astringency of the beans. The fermented beans are then dried for about one to two weeks. As shown in image c, the beans are dried in the sun which soaks up excess moisture leading to a loss of about ½ the beans’ original weight (Coe and Coe, 2019). 

Source: Lectures Slides 1 and 2

After drying, the beans are roasted, as shown in the above image d. This is a crucial step as it reduces microbiological contaminants, further reduces acidity, introduces various flavors, and loosens shells for the subsequent step- winnowing (the deshelling of the roasted bean). The resulting product is called a cacao nib, which is then grounded to make a chocolate paste or liquor on a metate, as shown in image e. The metate, a curved stone surface on which people from Olmec to Aztec civilizations ground grains like cacao and maize, was a crucial Mesoamerican tool, still being used by some chocolate makers today (Coe and Coe, 2019). 

Olmec (~1500 BC – 400 BC)

Although we have few deciphered Olmec writings, recent linguistic research linking the Olmec language to the more understood Mixe-Zoquean family of languages, have allowed us to better comprehend Olmec culture, including food. One of the important precursors to chocolate production was the discovery of maize nixtamalization by the Olmec. Before nixtamalization, it took a lot of time and energy to soften grains of maize for consumption. However, through nixtamalization, the maize grains were softened in bulk. They were cooked with lime or ash and left overnight, after which they could be easily grinded into powder on a metate, resulting in a smooth dough (nixtamalli) as shown in the image below. Nixtamalli was crucial to the rise of chocolate making for two reasons. First, the amino-acid enhancing properties of the process dramatically increased the nutritional value of maize, thereby creating the “jolt necessary to put Mesoamericans on the road to civilization, and therefore the leisure in which to enjoy luxuries like chocolate” (Coe and Coe, 2019). The second reason was nixtamalli mixed in water with the chocolate paste was one of the foundational recipes that persisted in the chocolate production of the Maya and Aztec as saca.

Source: Manuel, J. (2018, December 28).
Nixtamalization Of Corn: Ancient Secret Of The Americas. Retrieved March 7, 2020, from https://spanishyogaretreat.com/blog/nixtamalization-of-corn/

Maya (1800 BC- 1600 AD)

Source: Lecture 2

The Maya flourished between 250 and 900 AD  (Classical period) in Northern Guatemala/ Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico. For the Maya, chocolate held deep religious, societal, and economic significance, thus, it’s no surprise that chocolate production and usage was well documented in various Mayan codices and vase engravings. The usage of chocolate recipes in Maya civilization is highlighted through various ceremonies like religious sacrifices to the gods as recorded in the Madrid Codex and marital ceremonies in which a bride would have to make a cacao drink and prove she could make it with the proper froth- one of the most significant Mayan chocolate innovations (Garthwaite, 2015). Froth was the foamy superficial layer of cacao drinks, produced by repeatedly pouring a cacao drink from vessel-to-vessel. As depicted above in the engraving on the Princeton Vase of the late-Classical Mayan period (750 AD), the Mayan women would pour the cacao drink from a vessel at an elevated height to a vessel on the ground (Coe and Coe, 2019). The rush of cacao liquid from the elevated vessel into the grounded one disturbed the surface of the grounded cacao drink thereby creating the froth or yom cacao (chocolate foam). The importance of froth in Mesoamerican cacao drinks is highlighted in Meredith Dreiss’ book, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, where she writes that “chocolate is for the body, but the foam is for the soul” (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).

Like the Olmec, the Maya chocolate recipes were prepared for drinking. Classical Mayan cocoa drinks were often hot and consisted of gruels, drinks of mixed grains in water. This gruel had the maize and cocoa grain foundation possible after the Olmec nixtamalization, but also included ground chillies and other spices- a drink modernly called pinole. Because the Mayan empire expanded over nearly 40 cities across the Yucatan Peninsula, recipes varied from region to region as cacao pods and spices grown in each region differed. These variations are highlighted by franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun in the 1577 Florentine Codex (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck, 2017): 

“And in finishing eating, next was set out many kinds of cacao, made very delicately, like these: 

Xoxouhqui cacaocintli [blue-green cacao pod], cacao made with the tender cacao pod, and is very tasty to drink. 

Quauhnecvio [mature/great honey] cacao, cacao made with honey from bees. 

Xochio [flower] cacao, cacao made with vej nacaztli [aromatic herbs]. 

The Mayans used dozens of flavorings, from chillies to vanilla, but the most elaborate cacao recipes were produced by the Aztec people that rose to prominence during the decline or Post-Classical Mayan period. 

Aztec: 1300-1521 AD

In the Aztec civilization of central Mexico, chocolate was reserved for only the royal household, the elite, and sometimes warriors. Cocoa drinks were primarily served cold and were very calorically dense. The Aztec had different rankings for quality of cacao drinks, and considered delicately produced cacao drinks that were “unadulterated” by any other spice or ingredient, tlaquetzalli (“precious thing”), which were served only to the lords. Like the Maya before them, the Aztec maintained a deep appreciation for froth and continued making gruels of cacao and maize, which were believed to make them invincible warriors (Coe and Coe, 2019).

Flavorings in Aztec cacao drinks often consisted of grounded chilli powder ranging from mild to extremely spicy. Reports by Sahagun on Aztec cacao recipes reveal many variations of chocolate like “honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flower chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, and white chocolate.” Another Spaniard that documented Aztec cacao recipes was Fracisco Hernandez, the royal physician and naturalist to Phillip II of Spain. From Hernandez’s documentation of cacao recipes during his 1570 trip to the New World, we also learn that three flavorings were highly prized by the Aztec- hueinacaztli (a thick, ear-shaped petal of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum flower), vanilla, and mecaxochitl (“string flower”; related to back pepper). Although there are a multitude of other flavorings, from sapote seeds to “popcorn flower”, that the Aztecs used to diversify their cacao recipes, the chocolate products they made are far from the sweetened versions of chocolate we are accustomed to (Coe and Coe, 2019). 

Examining how chocolate was first produced in the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, allows us to realize that chocolate recipes in Mesoamerica were an evolving art influenced by various cultures and societies, but distinctly different from what we now know as chocolate. Furthermore, the incredibly diverse Mesoamerican chocolate recipes challenge us to expand our understanding of chocolate beyond the sugary versions marketed to us today.


Works Cited:

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2019). The Tree of the Food of the Gods. In The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.

Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Serve Up the Chocolate: Drinks, Vessels, and Glyphs. In Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Garthwaite, J. (2015, February 12). What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/

History.com Editors. (2017, December 14). History of Chocolate. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate#section_2

Schwartzkopf, S., & Sampeck, K. E. (2017). Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. In Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Young, A. M. (2007). Out of the Rain Forest: The Journey of Chocolate Begins. In The chocolate tree: a natural history of cacao. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

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