What Did Chocolate Taste Like Before European Intervention?: A Brief History of Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes

By Juliana Ruggieri

Today if you ask someone to describe chocolate, they would describe a bar of a sweet and silky creation that is hard when you bite it but melts as it hits your mouth. This idea of the solid chocolate bar however is distinct from the original forms of cacao in historical mesoamerican recipes. Cacao has existed for millenia in Central and South America. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe give an excellent  description of the history of cacao before colonial powers ever laid eyes on the crop. The Olmec people, who lived in the Mexican gulf coast from 1500 to 400 BCE, are wrongly believed to be the first to understand and produce chocolate products; however, researches at the Hershey Lab have shown that while the Olmecs certainly used cacao, they were by no means the first to engage with this product (2019, 34). Coe and Coe explain that evidence of cacao has been found on the pottery of a pre-Olmec civilization that existed sometime between 1800 and 1400 BCE, called “Barra” by researchers. The design and delicate nature of the vessels suggest that they would have been used to display the valuable chocolate drink rather than cooking it (2019, 36). In chapter 2, Coe and Coe present the earliest known depiction of a chocolate drink being made on a vessel from 750CE. The image depicts an important part of Aztec and Mayan chocolate recipes: the process of pouring the liquid from one vessel to another to create foam, “considered the most desirable part of the drink” (2019, 50). These ancient civilizations reveal how long cacao has existed and been an important part of life in Mesoamerica.

Image from the Codex Tudela depicting an (Europeanized) Aztec women pouring chocolate from one vessel to another

Anonymous, “Mujer vertiendo chocolate,” circa 1553, Madrid-Museo de América.

The Mayan people experienced chocolate centuries before the Aztecs, using cacao both as a currency and a drink (2015).  The Classic Maya likely enjoyed their chocolate drinks at a variety of temperatures; however, so far the cacao hieroglyph has only appeared on excavated vessels used to keep drinks cool (2019, 45). As Coe and Coe describe cacao in Classic Maya was not prepared just to be “…drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings…” (2019, 44). Classic Maya chocolate was made by grinding processed cacao beans (beans that had been hulled, roasted, and fermented) into a powder then mixing it with water and other flavorings in a basin, before transferring the liquid between two vessels to produce the coveted froth (2019, 95). The Maya are known to have often mixed their chocolate with ground maize and chilli (2015). 


An image from Sahagún depicting Aztec pochtecas traveling.

Sahagún. Historia de Las Cosas de Nueva España, . Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence. 

Despite being far from the first to work with cacao, the Aztec people are often associated with ideas of early chocolate. Cacao was an extremely important aspect of Aztec life. The Aztec drank chocolate beverages for both religious and medicinal reasons, never cooking with chocolate along the same lines as a Christian would not cook with communion wine (2015).  As explained in The True History of Chocolate chocolate was seen as a favorable replacement to alcoholic beverages, “One of the reasons that the Aztecs were so interested in chocolate was that their native drink octli… was mildly alcoholic, and drunkenness was not looked upon favorably by Aztec society” (2019, 99). The pochteca (merchants) would bring four types of cacao, all thought to be among the criollo variety, to the center of the empire either for trade or tribute (2019, 104). Aztec recipes for chocolate drinks involved the same preparation as their Mayan counterparts, although the Aztec drinks are thought to have almost always been served cold (2019, 100). Inferior varieties of cacao were beefed up by adding nixtamalli and water, creating a gruel flavored with chocolate (2019, 102). The Aztec would often add extra flavorings to their chocolate drinks, a universally popular addition was powdered chilli, which could range from mild to extremely hot (2015). However many other flavorings were used. The Food Timeline quotes Townsend’s The Aztecs where some of the most popular additions including spices, like chenopodium, coriander and sage, vanilla orchid pods, or sweeteners, like honey (2015).

In  “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism,” Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck track how historical mesoamerican chocolate recipes influenced colonial European consumption of chocolate. They begin by giving a brief summary of the history of chocolate explaining how the first recipe for chocolate is believed to come from the Izalcos in Guatemala. They present images that explain the transfer of chocolate recipes between Mesoamerica, Colonial America, and Europe. The charts depict the strongest connection being the flow of recipes and other resources out of Guatemala and Peru to England (2017, 87). These recipes contained a variety of ingredients beyond the standard caco and water, the most common being  xochinacaztli, chile, anise, mecaxuchil, vanilla, Alexandran roses, cinnamon, almond, hazelnut, sugar, achiote, jamaica pepper, nutmeg, clove musk, ambergris, citron, lemon peel, odoriferous aromatic oil, china, sarsa, and saunders. The authors go on to explain the importance of this connection because of the global power the British Empire held at the time: “The most influential recipes for chocolate are British. This means that the set of ingredients occuring in British sources acts most like a base recipe from which other European ones derived” (2017, 89). This connection means that the recipes developed in what is now Guatemala and Peru would go on to be the beginning of what would eventually become the chocolate we know and love today.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline–Aztec, Maya & Inca Foods.” The Food Timeline, March 1, 2015. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017.

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