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Savory Chocolate

max brenner
The homepage logo for Max Brenner Chocolate Bar (1)

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.


new taste
A New Taste of Chocolate by Maricel Presilla has recipes from chocolate lobster stew to Mayan Hot Chocolate (7)

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.

Changing Attitudes

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.

Trending Today

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.

Pollo en mole pablano. Saveur (4)

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.

MOF chef
Jacques Torres (Photograph by Barry Johnson) (8)

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.

Expanding Horizons

My own creation of Baba Ghannouj in White Chocolate. Recipe from Saveur (9).



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.



Works Cited

  1. Brenner, Max. “Creating a New Chocolate Culture Worldwide.” Max Brenner. 2016. Web. <;.
  2. Chocolate Fettuccine with Peas and Pancetta. Giada De Laurentiis. Perf. Giada De Laurentiis. Food Network; Giada at Home, 2015.
  3. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  4. Editors, Saveur. “12 Savory Chocolate Recipes.” Saveur3 Feb. 2016. Print.
  5. 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.
  6. Norton, M. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review3 (2006): 660-91. Web.
  7. Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
  8. Raposo, Jacqueline. “Hey Chef, What Savory Dishes Can I Make With Chocolate?” Web log post. Serious Eats. 10 Feb. 2015. Web.
  9. “White Chocolate Baba Ghannouj.” Saveur11 Feb. 2103. Print.
  10. 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.

Chasing Perfection

Since the 1940s chocolate advertising has largely been dominated by stereotyped and hypersexualized images of women, or sexualized images of men FOR women4. They depict women with a lack of self-control, of women caving to their ‘guilty’ pleasures, of women giving in to the temptation and sins of chocolate4. This form of advertising, however, has consequences that go beyond its blatantly offensive stereotypes. Such highly gendered advertising perpetuates images of perfection that in turn create impossible standards. The resulting culture is one of indulgence and shame that often has extremely negative consequences. To combat the negative imagery that exists in advertising, there needs to be a shift, where women are portrayed as inspirations of a healthy lifestyle that encourages moderation instead of guilt and perfection.

Impossible Standards

Dove Chocolate Advertisement (1)

“A six-pack that melts a girl’s heart.” This ad often appears in critiques of chocolate advertising. It shows the abs of what appears to be a black male, clearly edited and enhanced. The ad makes reference to the temptation of the male body for women in the same way that chocolate also tempts women. This reinforces the stereotype that women are both sex crazed and obsessed with chocolate; a stereotype that is largely a consequence of chocolate’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities4. But I would like to dig a little further into the effects of this ad. To sell the product, the advertisement compares Dove chocolate to this impossibly perfect male figure. The association begins with women, who are clearly the target of this ad, desiring this perfect male figure. His figure dominates the visual space of the ad, filling the image with a picture of desire for women. The attention then focuses to the bottom right hand corner, to the bar of chocolate. This bar and the figure have the same coloring, the same editing, and even the same shaping. This resemblance serves to create an immediate association between the man that is desirable and the chocolate, thereby making that chocolate desirable. The text at the bottom is the final focus, since it is small print that blends into the coloring of the picture, which serves to reinforce the association between this “perfect” man and thus the perfect chocolate that all women are supposed to want desperately. This ad plays to the sexual desires of women as well as their insecurities about body image and its implications for actually being in a relationship with the perfect man. This ad has two major implications: 1) it is created based on the idea that women must desire the ‘perfect’ man who is represented by singularly physical (and unattainable) attributes and 2) that men do the “melting” while women are the ones who are “melted”, reinforcing a hetero-normative sexual hierarchy that chocolate advertising has long perpetuated. As well there is a distinct contradiction at work- the male figure is perfect in this ad, thereby selling the chocolate to women. However, according to mainstream media, to get the perfect man, women shouldn’t being eating chocolate because they too need a perfect body! Such impossible standards and contradictions breed a culture that shames women and places them into an inferior relationship with the men around them.


The entire purpose of advertisements is to make consumers buy a product. But in ads like the Dove ad above, marketers are inflicting a ridiculous cultural stigma onto customers with potentially very damaging effects. In a 2009 study, researchers found that women who were exposed to advertisements that used thin models were more likely to avoid chocolate2. The counter to this avoidance was that the women then experienced extreme cravings for chocolate since they were intentionally depriving themselves of it, leading to excessive indulgence and feelings of guilt and shame2. The study concluded that this could be a possible link to a culture of eating disorders brought on by the exposure to the advertisements2. The Dove ad that uses a male model may be less directly correlated to female eating disorders, but it still has massive psychological effects and contributes to the impossible standard that is present in our culture.

Blog Post 3 climbing ad picture
Original  Advertisement created for the Chocolate Class Blog (5)

As a response to such negative and damaging advertising, I created an ad that featured images of the top female rock climbers in the world. I chose pictures that intentionally showed them doing their sport rather than modeling. My purpose in including them was to inspire rather than demoralize women. These women constitute several generations of ground breaking female athletes at the top of their sport, competing and often ahead of their male counterparts. These pictures show their skill and strength rather than objectifying them. The accompanying slogan is a direct response to the previous reference that only males have six-packs and muscles. Additionally I think that despite our crazy guilt over what NOT to eat, chocolate can have a healthy place in our diet. In moderation, it can in fact be a very positive food, and not just an indulgence to an irrational craving. By showing that real women eat chocolate on a daily basis as part of a balanced diet serves to encourage a healthy lifestyle that is not fraught by a binge and purge mentality.


Ads that encourage healthy habits instead of guilt and impossible standards do actually exist in the world of advertising. In an ad for JoJo’s chocolate bark (a homemade dark chocolate snack), we encounter a woman with an inspirational story who is simply trying to live a healthier lifestyle after a close call with cancer. Additionally, the ad features a woman and a man who do cross fit and eat the bark, showing its benefits as well as showing real unedited people who live a healthy active life. While not entirely rid of stereotypes (white woman in her kitchen, making chocolate that her son likes to eat… sounds eerily similar to the original housewife ads of Cadbury and Rowntree) I think it is a step in the right direction. Ads like this will help to break the relationship between women and the stereotypes of guilty eating and hypersexualization, as well as help to make chocolate a part of a healthy balanced lifestyle.



  1. Dove Chocolate. Dove Chocolate Ads and Commercials Archive, Seoul. Ed. Mars, INC.
  2. Durkin, K., and K. Rae. “P02-53 Women and Chocolate Advertising: Exposure to Thin Models Exacerbates Ambivalence.” European Psychiatry1 (2009): S743. Doi:10.1016/S0924-9338(09)70976-9. Web.
  3. Food Creators. “JoJo’s Chocolate: Cure the Craving”. Youtube. Dec.22, 2014. Web.
  4. Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.
  5. Photos used to make the advertisement
    1. Abshire, Megan. SBC at ABS Nationals. 2015. Rock and Ice the Climbing Magazine, Colorado Springs.
    2. Burcham, John. A Female Rock Climber in Joshua Tree National Park, California. National Geographic Creative. Sports, Joshua Tree National Park.
    3. Patagonia Climbing Ambassador, Lynn Hill. 1993. Patagonia, Ventura, Ca.

Invention and Innovation in Sugar Production

For centuries, the production methods of refined sugar from sugarcane remained remarkably unchanged. The inefficiencies and expenses of the original methods kept sugar as a rarity; but over a short period around the industrial revolution, mechanization and improvements to the process brought sugar to the people. This pattern of democratization through industrialization occurred in the history of many foodstuffs including chocolate. But of all the changes that occurred during the industrial revolution, the changes in the production of sugar had perhaps the most drastic cultural impact. The new innovations in technology allowed a labor intensive luxury product to become a profitable industry around the world.

Ancient Sugar Production

Sugar production began around 500BC in India. Though there may have been earlier production and certainly earlier cultivation (cultivation of sugarcane has been dated to about 8000 BC), the first methods of sugar production to be recorded came from India in the accounts of Alexander the Great4. During this time, sugar cane was boiled into a sort of syrup, a “taffylike” substance, that could be molded into different shapes3. What we think of as sugar today, a refined crystal, is thought to be a product of Egypt innovation starting in about 400AD4. In the process of making refined sugar, the cane juice was boiled, the excess liquid was evaporated and crystals were formed by “agitating” the remaining liquid3. Lime juice and egg whites were added to the mixture as refining agents and preservatives3. The principles of this simple method survived until the present. However, the scale and tools of production changed as the sugar industry moved to the Atlantic.

Production on the Pre-Industrial Plantations

In the European colonies, sugar became a central enterprise with production located on the plantations themselves. On these plantations the sugar was produced by a long, arduous process in mills located on the very plantations that grew the sugar cane. Detailed

Painting of a plantation sugar mill in Trinidad (1)

descriptions by the plantation owners and operators of the late 1700s give insight into the details of the process. In The Jamaica Planter’s Guide, Thomas Roughley shares his own process6. He details planting and cultivating the cane, cutting the stalks once they were ripe and transporting the cane by mule to the mills6. In the mills the cane was crushed and boiled6. The juices were then sent on to be strained and boiled and tempered by lime juice6. The liquor was then distilled and evaporated multiple times producing sugar crystals. This process was extremely difficult and relied on extensive knowledge by the proprietor6. Roughley describes difficulties with the type of soil, the time of planting and harvesting, the boiling time, the evaporation temperature, and even the weather affecting the outcome of the sugar6. This process was as inefficient as previous methods with high land and fuel costs. It also relied on the inhumane labor practice of slavery. However, early mechanization allowed for increased production. In 1768 steam power was introduced to the Jamaica plantations which allowed the mills to be larger and to run at all hours of the day (at the expense of the slave labor required to operate the mill)3. It also allowed more heat to be generated in the boiling and evaporation process3. The implementation of this new steam technology marked a turning point in sugar processing. During the coming Industrial Revolution and in the years following the introduction of steam, a process that had largely been the same for 1000 or more years rapidly became mechanized and produce larger quantities of sugar than had ever been seen before.

The Industrial Revolution

Over the next two centuries from the time of the Jamaica plantations to the present, several new inventions changed the sugar making process to make it more productive and efficient. The first change included boiling the cane juice in a closed container, rather than an open cauldron3. This required less heat thereby reducing the risk of carmelization and lowering fuel costs3. The most important revolution came in 1846 when Norbert Rillieux

Original patent drawing for Norbert Rillieux’s evaporator (1846). (5)

invented the evaporator5. This new device used multiple pans at different pressures to evaporate the liquid from the sugar in a very efficient and controlled environment5. The final major improvement to the process during the Industrial revolution came in 1852 with the invention of the centrifuge, which allowed sugar crystals to be separated from molasses3. In a matter of less than 100 years these inventions turned a slow, inefficient process that had been used for thousands of years into a mechanized process that produced significantly greater quantities and quality of sugar.

Modern Sugar Processing

Today sugar is made using the inventions of the Industrial Revolution and the basic methods of boiling and evaporation developed in India over 2000 years ago. The Imperial Sugar Company gives an insight into this modern method in this video2. We can see not only how the use of machines has changed the process, but also the ways in which the basic tenets remain unchanged. The consequences of the development in the production methods of sugar cannot be understated. The change in production methods played a vital role in sugar’s journey from a rarity to a luxury, to a commonly eaten food, to a necessity in the western diet. With mechanization came mass production, which helped to decrease the price of cane sugar and increase the supply4. This price decrease along with a myriad of other social and cultural factors helped make sugar accessible to all classes and turned sugar into the central carbohydrate of the modern world4.

1.Bridgens, Richard. West India Scenery, with Illustrations of Negro Character, the Process of Making Sugar, &c. from Sketches Taken During a Voyage To, and Residence of Seven Years In, the Island of Trinidad. 1836. University of Michigan.
2.Imperial Sugar. “How Cane Sugar is Made.” Youtube, June 9 2015. Web.
4.Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y: Viking, 1985. Print.
5.Rillieux, Norbert. Evaporating Pan. 1846. US Patent and Trademark Office.
6.Roughley, Thomas. The Jamaica Planter’s Guide. London., 1823. Print.

Cacao as a Medicinal Herb

Ingesting Chocolate

What if chocolate was actually good for us?

It is a splendid possibility to imagine that we could consume one of our favorite treats guilt free. The fantasy of chocolate as not only delicious but also as miraculously healthy, has captured the western imagination since its introduction. In fact, it was under the guise of medicine that chocolate was able to successfully infiltrate the nobility in Europe and then spread to the masses. Upon “discovering” cacao and its uses in Mesoamerican culture, the Europeans immediately tried to fit the substance into their Galenic system of medicine (3). This system, which seems barabaric and completely ridiculous in light of modern knowledge, was the foundational truth of health in Barocque Europe. It created four categories that related to four substances in the body with good health dependent on a balance between them (3). The categories were ‘Hot’, ‘Cold’, ‘Wet’, ‘Dry’ (3). Chocolate and cacao were controversial for the early Europeans who subscribed to this humoral system. Royal Physician to Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernandez determined that cacao was ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ and most of Europe tended to fall into agreement (3). A central tenant of this western idea, however, was that the balance happens within the body, requiring that chocolate must be ingested. As a consequence, the medicinal recipes in early Europe are mostly just recipes for simple forms of what we now consider to be hot chocolate. For example: William Hughes writing in 1672 details a medicinal chocolate recipe to “strengthen the stomach” that combines cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, sugar and optionally pepper and cloves (4). In our modern culture, this actually sounds tasty!

hot coco
European hot chocolate made from a Food Network recipe, including cardamom and pepper. (Food Network)

Even today, as we yearn to find medicinal value in chocolate, we stick to the requirement that it must be ingested. In 2006 an NPR broadcast discussed a study done at John’s Hopkins University that found consumption of small amounts of chocolate to have similar beneficial effects as that of aspirin on heart patients (NPR). This conclusion was made after several participants broke the ‘no chocolate’ rule during the aspirin trial (NPR). They were disqualified, but studied nonetheless (NPR). What the scientists found was that the casual chocolate consumers saw effects similar to that of aspirin (listen to the full story here). These results are by no means conclusive proof that chocolate is a miracle cure for heart disease or any other ailments; but it does show how deeply ingrained the fascination with chocolate’s medicinal value is in our culture. As well it shows that we center these supposed health benefits around the process of ingesting chocolate.

Artistic renditions from the Badianus Manuscript. The cacao tree is featured in the middle of the top row. (1)


Cacao as an herb

But what if the European explorers missed the most valuable essence of chocolate’s healing powers? To find its true power we may need to restructure how we view chocolate and refocus ourselves from sugary (but delicious) beverages to the cacao plant itself. The oldest piece of evidence can be found in the oldest text on Aztec culture from a European perspective: the Badianus Manuscript (4). Written in 1552 (before Sahagun’s famous Florentine Codex documenting the making of cacao beverages) this text documents the use of herbal remedies by Aztec healers or physicians (4). One of the defining characteristics of this codex is its vibrant renditions of the regional flora (2). On the picture above we can see in the middle of the top row, the ever familiar cacao tree with its bright pods. Cacao makes appearances in many of the recipes, curing everything from dental problems to fatigue (4). One particularly interesting use of cacao found in this manuscript comes from the entry on curing “injury of the feet.” (2) Using “the flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower]” this complicated recipe comes together as a sort of bath for the feet, applied topically and not ingested (2). No doubt this would have been essential for a people whose primary mode of transportation was their feet (2).

Below is the translated recipe (2):

“For injured feet grind together these herbs: tlalhecapahtli[“earth wind medicine”], coyoxiuitl [“rose colored bell plant”], yztauhyatl [“salty water plant”], tepechian[“mountain chia”], achilli [flexible, reddish water plant], xiuehcapahtli [“plant wind medicine”],quauhyyauhtli [“wild incense”], quetzalxoxouhcaphtli [“precious blue medicine”], tzotzotlani[“glistening plant], The flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower], and also piltzintecouhxochitl[“noble lord flower”], and foliage of hecapahtli [“wind medicine”] and ytzcuinpahtli [“dog medicine”], the stone tlahcalhuatzin [bezoar stone of huatzin, a native bird], eztetl [“bloodstone”—a type of jasper] and tetlahuitl [red ochre stone], pale-colored earth…

Put some in a little tub over embers or a fire to heat it in water; and when the liquid has become hot, put the feet into the tub. And some part of it is to be inspissated by fire, and is to be applied to the feet; and so that it will not run off, the feet are to be wrapped in a cloth. Next day our unguent
 xochiocotzotl [“flower pine resin”] and white incense are to be thrown on a fire so that the feet may become healthy from the odor and heat. Besides the seed of the herb called xexihuitl is to be ground, and when it has been pulverized in hot water it is to be put on the feet. Thirdly, apply the herb tolohuaxiuitl [“datura plant”] and briars ground in hot water.”

This recipe is a striking departure from that of the early Europeans in two important ways. The first is its extensive use of exotic herbs. The second is it’s consideration of cacao as an herb. In western society it would take a great deal of imagination to see our precious chocolate treats as an herb. Historians have proven that the Aztecs had an incredible knowledge of plants as medicine, a knowledge that far outstripped any of the Galenic principles in Barocque Europe (3). Given this, it is no longer hard to imagine that even in modern day society our vision of chocolate is clouded by cultural norms, and that perhaps chocolate’s real power lies not in a sugary brown drink but in a leafy green plant.

1. Badianus Illustration [Photograph]. (2012, February 14). Badianus Manuscript, Nixon Medical Historical Library. Found through the UT Health Science Center
2. Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal, 1552. (2007). Retrieved from Courtesy of University of Virginia: Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
3. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
4. Dillinger, T. L. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal Nutrition. Retrieved from html
5. Food Network Kitchen. (2016). Spiced Hot Cocoa. Retrieved from Photographs by Levi Brown
6. More Good News for Chocolate Lovers [Broadcast]. (2006, November 15). Washington: National Public Radio. Host: Steve Inskeep