Tag Archives: cacahuatl

How Cacahuatl Became Chocolate

Many modern-day chocolate enthusiasts are surprised to learn that when the Spaniards first encountered Mesoamerica they were repulsed by the cacao-beverage of the native Aztecs. Due to its gritty texture and bitter taste, some even said it was more of a drink for pigs than humans and even barbaric, due to the sight of Aztecs with red-stained mouths as if they had been drinking blood due to their achiote-laced chocolate. Spanish aversion to drinking cacao eventually dissipated, partly due to the filling, nonalcoholic nature of the beverage and out of necessity. Having palates familiar with Old World flavors, the new settlers imported livestock such as cows and sheep as well as crops such as wheat, sugar cane, and peaches. The Maya and Aztecs used honey as a sweetener but had nothing close to the sweet tooth cravings of the Europeans. Not surprisingly, hybridization began to occur between the two cultures. An entire generation of Spanish Creoles born, and this was the context in which chocolate was eventually transplanted to Old Spain and the rest of Europe, which led to the introduction of chocolate to the European colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and around the world through trade. If the original Mesoamerican cacao beverage had not undergone extensive hybridization with European customs such as taste modification and linguistic changes, then chocolate as we know it probably would have never existed.


Imaginary scene of Aztecs creating chocolate, from John Ogillby’s America, of 1671. The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate, and has incorrectly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (Coe 113).

There is much debate concerning the origins of the word “chocolate”. In many old documents and letters chocolate is referred to as “cacahuatl”, (“cacao water”). One compelling reason for the linguistic switch among its white consumers is the reality that words and word roots in one language can become awkward and even offensive once transferred to a foreign cultural and linguistic setting. In most Roman languages, the word “caca” is a vulgar term for feces. (The term cacafuego—“shitfire” even appears in an early 18th century Spanish-English dictionary.) It is understandable why Spaniards would be uncomfortable with a word beginning with “caca” to describe a thick, brown drink they wanted to introduce to Europeans back home. One popular theory of where “chocolate” came from is the Maya word “chocol” and the Aztec word for water “atl”. It is safe to say if this name change had not happened, then the drink would have probably never become popular back in Europe, and without introducing the new methods of preparing and serving the drink, (i.e. the introduction of sugar), then chocolate would have remained a local delicacy of Central and South America among the native elites, not eventually a global phenomenon consumed by all social classes.

The chocolate drink was originally served as a cold, bitter, unsweetened beverage, probably in part due to the warm climate of Central America. The Spanish insisted on drinking their chocolate hot and regularly sweetening it with cane sugar, as well as replacing spices such as “ear flower” and the foreign chili pepper with more familiar flavors such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper. Europeans also needed to figure out a way that they could transport chocolate across the ocean on long voyages back to Spain; chocolate was too perishable. The Spaniards manufactured the finished beverage from a dried wafer or tablet of ground cacao that just needed hot water and sugar added to it. Guatemalan nuns may have invented this method, but Aztec warriors were also issued similar “instant chocolate” for sustenance during military campaigns. The Spaniards used these wafers as a convenient way to store and ship the cacao as a dried product, not unlike the instant hot cocoa we continue to drink today.



Image from nationwidecandy.com (2015)

And finally, the last change required in order for chocolate to become popular in Europe was its marketing. Unlike the sacredness and spirituality of chocolate in the Aztec context, in Europe it was marketed as medicine beneficial for all humoral temperaments (a desirable trait in the Baroque medical terminology of the time). Similar to other common drugs of the time (i.e. tea and coffee) the medicine became recreational, not unlike the Coca Cola phenomenon in the Americna South. All of these drinks engendered a craving for them by those who drank them, (due to their stimulant nature) and chocolate became a mainstream component of the European diet.


The Family of the Duke of Penthievre or The Cup of Chocolate by Jean-Baptiste Chapentier. (mystudios.com)

Ultimately, at the time Europe had the most widespread access to the majority of the globe through colonization. In order for the Europeans to have spread chocolate to their territories, they would have to had developed a craving for the beverage, which would not have happened if hybridization of the Mesoamerican beverage had not occurred through taste, language, and initial branding as a health food.



Coe, Sophia D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson. 2007. Print. Chapter 4: Encounters and Transformation, Chapter 5: Chocolate Encounter Europe, pp.106-176.  

Chapentier, Jean-Baptiste. The Family of the Duke of Penthievre (The Cup of Chocolate). 1768. http://www.mystudios.com 20 Feb 2015

Dakin, Karen and Wichmann, Soren. Ancient Mesoamerica. Vol 11 Issue 1. Jan 2000, pp. 55-75.  http://dx.doi.org  08 September 2000. WEb. 20 Feb 2015. Abstract. 

Ogillby, John. America. 1671. Engraving. The True History of Chocolate. Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D. 2nd ed. 2007. 113. Print.

Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows. online posting for sale. http://www.nationwidecandy.com. 20 Feb 2015

The Evolution of “Hot Chocolate”

Today, it is not so uncommon to walk into a coffee shop and order a classic hot chocolate, but the sweet, rich flavor we know and love now has not always characterized a typical “hot chocolate” drink. In fact, the first “hot chocolate” was served cold and had no sugar at all (Martin). The Aztecs and Mayans had very basic chocolate drinks, and one of the first descriptions of the Aztec chocolate drink by a European, Girolamo Benzoni, was that chocolate “seemed more like a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Coe and Coe 110). It was not until European intervention that sugar was added to those drinks (Martin). Europe’s addition of sugar to indigenous “hot chocolate” beverages transformed the drink from a cold, bitter drink to the warm, delectable drink we know today, and this transformation helped contribute to the expansion of chocolate consumption.

One of the first known chocolate drinks was made and consumed by the Mayans and Aztecs. This drink, known as cacahuatl, was made of cacao, ground maize, water, and sometimes chili, vanilla, or other indigenous spices (Miller). The video above shown in lecture shows a woman preparing a Mayan chocolate drink. The great care taken when grinding the cacao highlights the importance of the chocolate drink to the indigenous people (Martin). While the Aztecs and the Mayans enjoyed and respected this drink, the Europeans were not so fond of the bitter taste. As previously mentioned, Girolamo Benzoni was one of the first Europeans to record his experience with the cacahuatl, and he added that “the taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate” (Coe and Coe 110). That is, to the Europeans this chocolate drink was an acquired taste, and even after getting used to the taste, it was not necessarily desirable (Martin).

The Europeans solved the “bitterness problem” by adding their own ingredients to the original chocolate drink. Specifically, the Spaniards added sugar and spices such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper (Miller). These more familiar ingredients were likely added to make the chocolate drink more appealing to the palates of the Europeans at the time.The video above details European intervention in chocolate recipes, including the addition of sugar, spices, and eventually, milk. While modifications to hot chocolate recipes continue today, sugar is still a main ingredient, and a drink made of cacao, water, and cornmeal would still be considered an acquired taste. This makes it difficult to picture cacahuatl making it onto the menu of a typical coffee shop such as Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but it does give a new perspective as to how the addition of sugar to chocolate recipes helped increase chocolate consumption.

When the Europeans added sugar to the basic chocolate drink, the sugar changed the flavor of the drink. This change in flavor satisfied the “sweet tooth” of the European population at the time, and because of this, more people were inclined to try the chocolate drink, and soon, chocolate houses became a common social venue (Martin). The spread of chocolate truly began once the chocolate drink started to satisfy the palates of a greater number of people. The expansion of chocolate continues today as new ingredients are added to create more complex hot chocolate recipes like the ones described in the video above. Just like sugar, ingredients such as peanut butter, caramel, and nutella serve to alter the flavor as to satisfy all sorts of tastes. This new wave of modifications is even diverging from sweet hot chocolate at times to appeal to those looking for salty, savory, or even spicy chocolate drinks. All of these changes serve to appeal to a wider range of people and sustain the chocolate culture we know today.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 11 February 2015. Class Lecture.

Miller, Ashley. Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Cornell University, 2007. Web. 19 February 2015.

Montesinos, Veronica. “The Story of Chocolate.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 April 2011. Web. 19 February 2015.

Simply Bakings. “3 DIY Hot Chocolate Recipes.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 December 2014. Web. 19 February 2015.

Toledo Ecotourism Association. “Making a Chocolate Drink.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 May 2008. Web. 19 February 2015.

Chocolate and Its secret recipes

Some might not know this but chocolate has not always been known for its sweet taste that many of us have recognized it to have in today’s culture. Today many of us think of chocolate to have a sweet, sugary taste. But in early Classic period (460-480 ad) and throughout the 15th century chocolate was typically consumed as a frothy, bitter drink. Chocolate was in the form of a bitter beverage served either hot or cold. The first form of solid chocolate wasn’t created until the late 18th century. So for the majority of chocolate’s existence in human culture, we’ve been drinking it. “For about 90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn’t have anything to do with it” (Bensen, 2008). It wasn’t until the 19th century when Europeans hybridized chocolate and added sweeteners such as sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon to sweeten the flavor of chocolate.

            In the early Classic period the Mayans typically consumed chocolate as a beverage. Chocolate originates from the cacao plant. Mayans grew cacao trees in their backyards, and used the cacao seeds that the trees produced to make a frothy, bitter drink. This bitter drink was called “xocolatl” meaning bitter water. Up until the 15th century the Mayans were the only ones in contact with chocolate. By the 15th century the Aztecs had migrated and gained control over a large portion of Mesoamerica. The control of Mesoamerica allowed for the Aztecs to access and adopt cacao into their culture. During this time period, chocolate was still consumed as a beverage. In contrast to the Mayans the Aztecs typically would drink their chocolate cold and add many different spices to add flavor. The chocolate drink that the Aztec embraced was a bitter, frothy, spicy drink.

This is how Aztecs would froth the chocolate


The Aztecs seasoned their drinks with vanilla, chile, and pepper to capture that spicy taste. The Aztecs prepared chocolate in a liquid form called cacahuatl.


To make this, Aztecs would “put 3/4 cup of water or milk and the sliced green chile (including the seeds) in a pot and bring it to boiling. Let the pot boil for 5-10 minutes, so the water really takes on the chile flavor” (Sean). Next they would strain it to remove the chile and the seeds, and then put the water back in the pot. As the pot heats up, they whisk in the vanilla extract. Finally, once it’s boiling, cocoa powder would be added and whisked for about 5 minutes or so. The mixture should then froth easily. For today’s generation this drink might not be pleasurable as the hot chocolate we consume today. One might have to add a couple spoons full of sugar to enhance the flavor.


This is a video that portrays how to make this Aztec form of chocolate

            Europeans first came into contact with chocolate when the Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortes, brought it back to king Philip IV of Spain. Once brought over to Spain, the Spaniards experimented with chocolate by adding cinnamon and milk to the sugar and serving it steaming hot. The Spanish hot chocolate recipe has a sweet taste. In order to make this sweet chocolate, Spaniards would “pour the milk into a medium saucepan heat the milk on medium heat just until it boils, then remove from heat. They would then add the chocolate squares immediately and begin stirring until the chocolate is completely melted. Once chocolate is completely melted sugar would now be added. The mixture would then thicken quickly” (Sierra). As soon as it thickens, one would remove the pan from the heat successfully creating European hot chocolate. This form of chocolate is sweeter than the Aztecs and Mayans forms of chocolate and many people in today’s modern culture would find this style of chocolate pleasurable. 


Sierra, Tony. “Spanish Hot Chocolate Recipe – Chocolate Caliente.” About.com Spanish Food. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://spanishfood.about.com/od/drinks/r

Sean. “Melting Mug: Recipe – cacahuatl, the Original Hot Chocolate.” Melting Mug: Recipe – cacahuatl, the Original Hot Chocolate. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <http://meltingmug.blogspot.com/2013/03/recipe-xocolatl-original-hot-chocolate.html&gt;.

“A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Bardi, Carla, and Alan Benson. The golden book of chocolate. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 2008. Print.

Monkeysee.com- Film how to make Aztec chocolate

“History of Chocolate.” Worldstandards.eu. World Standards, 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Woman Frothing Chocolate Water, Etla Market

Xococatl and Cacahuatl

The Mayans (main ruling period 200-950 A.D.) came before the Aztecs (established 1200 A.D) but they developed strong trade, whereby cacao was a main commodity and an influential part of both civilisations. Cacao in Mesoamerica was not available to the masses. It was a produce of immense wealth and cocoa beans were on many occasions used as money. Emperors and upper-class individuals would use cocoa beans as a currency, and in many cases to buy slaves. They were also the only ones that drank the chocolate and its wealth was a hierarchical classification for the Aztecs.

The Mayans and Aztecs did not eat chocolate, but rather they drank it. “For about 90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn’t have anything to do with it” (Bensen, 2008). Chocolate was not actually eaten until it entered Europe and was modified with their finding of sugar. The drink associated with cacao was known as ‘xocolatl’ to the Mayans, and ‘cacahuatl’ to the Aztecs. Xocolatl and cacahuatl translate to “bitter water” and the biological name of chocolate Theobroma cacao to “food of the gods”. Many people commonly recreate this drink today, but the way in which it is made has altered greatly. The bitter taste is not something we associate chocolate with today. From our experience, chocolate is known as a sweet, sinful commodity, but for the Mayans and Aztecs, bitterness was a strong trait of the chocolate they produced. The recipe for the original chocolate drink contains solely crushed cocoa beans mixed with water and chillies, and sometimes cornmeal and vanilla. It would be frothed and then drunk at room temperature. This frothing process took place by pouring the drink from one container to another from a distance or using a molinillo. The picture depicts a man frothing the drink by transferring it from one cup to another.

Man frothing chocolate

When the Spanish came with the European product of sugar, they used this, as well as adding cinnamon and replacing the water with milk. This created a sweeter, unhealthier version of the drink. In the modern era today, the drink is warmed and closely resembles hot chocolate.

Not only was the drink seen as a wealth status, but it also was believed to have medicinal benefits. Compared to the sugary chocolate we eat today, unsweetened cocoa has surprising health benefits. Xocai is a company that sells online “healthy” chocolate. They do not alkalise their chocolate, avoid artificial flavouring and add natural sweeteners.

This promotional video by the company sells the chocolate as a weight loss food and its basis on chocolate production is the way in which the Mayans and Aztecs approached chocolate. It is where they also take their company name, Xocai. They avoid sugar and milk that add unhealthy components to the chocolate.


The idea of the spicy chocolate flavouring has revolutionised even further. When researching the drink online, I stumbled across a company, suitably named Bittermens. They create non-alcoholic bitters that can be added to cocktails or other alcoholic drinks to add flavouring. One of their flavours is the “Xocolatl Mole™ Bitters” (Bittermens, 2013) with primary flavours of chocolate, cinnamon and spices. I was even more interested when I found out that the company was started locally; “Bittermens started production in Somerville, MA at a commercial kitchen that we leased from Taza Chocolate” (Bittermens, 2013). Since their intial start-up they moved to Brookyln, NY in 2011, and most recently New Orleans, LA, in 2013.


“A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

“Bittermens, Inc. – The Home of Bittermens Bitters.” Bittermens Inc The Home of Bittermens Bitters. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

changeyourchocolate. (2012, Sep 26). Xocolatl – Xocai Healthy Chocolate – MXI Corp. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXXe9NjgpJc

2011. Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/53199286@N00/5628548282/. Web. 21 Feb. 2014