Find yourself in Mexico City (CDMX) and you may be overwhelmed with the current culinary scene, namely the exploding revival of one of the country’s oldest exports–cacao. Along the tree-lined streets of the La Condesa neighborhood, next to art deco apartment buildings and vegan cafés, you’ll find yourself among myriad contemporary chocolate shops headed by a new class of Mexican chocolatiers. Head to Mercado Jamaica, one of the city’s oldest traditional public markets, and you may find it hard to resist the allure of seven different types of mole–each made with a distinct combination of cacao and chili. Pop into the city’s recently opened chocolate museum, MUCHO Museo del Chocolate, and sample a mix of traditional chocolate-maiz drinks and triple chocolate tamales. Even a stop into the local Sumesa supermarket yields a unique assortment of both traditional brands like Nestle and Hershey’s and the new artisanal elite. This is where I found myself this week when a last-minute reading period trip to CDMX landed me in one of the hotspots of cacao and chocolate history. Digging deeper into the roots of Mexican chocolate, I visited museums and supermarkets, conducted tastings, and sampled as much as I could get my hands on. In doing so I noted a renaissance of sorts, with the chocolate landscape becoming increasingly dominated by a revival of Mesoamerican techniques and traditions.
An Enduring History
Long before the introduction of foodstuffs like sugar and milk by the Europeans, cacao was an integral element of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultural life. The Olmec civilization of the Mexican Gulf Coast, known for their large head sculptures and use of jade, was originally believed to have been the first one to domesticate cacao–with the Mixe-Zoquean word kakawa coming into use as early as 1000 B.C. It was not until 2006 that Hershey Foods chemist W. Jeffrey Hurst conducted residue analysis on archaeological ceramics and discovered that pre-Olmec villagers of the Chiapas plain in the Soconusco region had actually been some of the first to turn the bean into chocolate nearly 38 centuries ago. As Michael and Sophie Coe point out in their seminal work A True History of Chocolate, the Theobroma cacao tree likely originated in the northwest Amazon basin and was exploited for is sweet pulp before pre-Olmec villagers in Chiapas found a means of turning it into something more reminiscent of modern chocolate.[i] Emerging cultures in other areas of modern-day Mexico grasped on to this new foodstuff, namely the Maya who despite flourishing several centuries after the Olmecs nonetheless employed their tradition of drinking chocolate. Mayan writings the Popol Vuh, as well as the Dresden Codex, include mentions of cacao in creation narratives, and the custom of combining cacao, water, and maize to create a foamy chocolate drink was popular, as was chokola’j–the custom of drinking it with others. The fall of the Maya and the conquest of the southern regions of present-day Mexico by the Aztec Empire between the 12th and 15th centuries brought a new culture in contact with cacao. The Aztecs similarly drank chocolate, as well as utilized it as a form of currency. Sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún confirmed these diverse uses, writing at one point about “chocolate kits” given to him by Aztec merchants: “They gave each noble two clay bowls…gave two hundred cacao beans to everyone, as well as one hundred seeds of that plant they call teunacaztli, and a tortoiseshell spoon for mixing the cacao. This was done by all merchants when they came from afar.”[ii] The concept of cacao and its combination with other foodstuffs like vanilla, peppers, and achiote was entirely new to the Spanish when they arrived in the late 15th century, but its flavor quickly became an acquired taste as conquistadors engaged in what Coe and Coe refer to as “crossing the taste barrier.”[iii] Such chocolate scholarship has often credited the Spanish with importing cows and cane sugar, in turn initiating a hybridization of cacao in which both classic tradition and European preference informed its new taste. Marcy Norton rebukes the Coe’s account, however, in “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” suggesting that the Spanish internalized Mesoamerican chocolate traditions and instead sought to emulate them on a wider scale in Europe. She writes:
“During the early history of chocolate among Europeans, the transmission of taste did not accord with the top-down structure of society. Instead, it flowed in the opposite direction: from the colonized to the colonizer, from the “barbarian” to the “civilized,” from the degenerate “creole” to the metropolitan Spaniard, from gentry to royalty. The European taste for chocolate emerged as a contingent accident of empire.”[iv]
Across the ocean, the custom of drinking chocolate as a frothy beverage continued, though the Spanish did add their own twist with sweeteners like cane sugar and “New World” spices like cinnamon, anise, and rose in place of spices like chile peppers and achiote.[v] The transformation of chocolate from drink to bar, from small-scale farming to mass production is an important one–but not integral to this story. I plan to focus instead on the centuries-long endurance of these Mesoamerican flavors, namely their contemporary renaissance.
A Visit to El Museo
One of the best places to start is with a visit to MUCHO Museo del Chocolate, in the Juárez neighborhood of CDMX. Finally within a tropical climate, I was able to see a cacao pod in person with the beans, nibs, winnowed shells, and sweet mucilaginous pulp first exploited by pre-Olmec villagers on display.
The museum’s many rooms contained not only the history of chocolate but several art pieces depicting its enduring cultural value. Pictured below is a recreation of the making of a chocolate drink in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, with the woman pouring a large batch of cacao and water into a separate container. She would most likely pour the mixture several times, in order to achieve the frothy consistency so sought after by its drinkers.
In order to mix the cacao with the water, however, the cacao beans would need to be winnowed (or deshelled) and their nibs rolled on a stone ledge called a metate with a rolling-pin-like “stone mano.”[vi] This would create the paste needed to successfully mix the cacao into a beverage. The reconstruction below, though inaccurate to the extent that most Mayan women wore loose fitting tunics rather than going bare-chested, shows the process of grinding the cacao–namely how physically arduous the process was.
The museum’s extensive exhibits and popular chocolate shop show just how important not only chocolate itself but its history has become in shaping cultural ideas of Mexico. Museum founder Ana Rita García Lascurain points out at that its inception in 2012, the museum was aimed at helping people understand, “how Mexico gave chocolate to the world.” Below is a feature conducted by Mexico City’s premier cultural news channel, Canal Once, in which you can take your own tour of the unique facilities.
Tasting #1: Chokola’j
The museum’s downstairs chocolatería was emblematic of the city’s larger Mesoamerican chocolate renaissance. After consulting the shop’s owners, I sampled three of their most popular and traditional offerings–agua con chocolate, chocolate caliente con chile picante (in lieu of their sold-out corn and chocolate drink pozol), and a tamal de chocolate. My travel partner and I then engaged in the Mayan tradition of chokola’j–or “drinking chocolate together.” The most prominent element of the agua con chocolate (“water with chocolate”) was its frothy texture and refreshing effect in the heat of an 80-degree day. As pointed out by scholars Louis E. Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro in field work from the late 1990s in Oaxaca, Mexico, contemporary agua con chocolate recipes almost always employ a molinillo, or “long wooden stick with rings at the bottom that spin when the stick is rolled between the palms.”[vii] The woman preparing our agua con chocolate did the same. My travel partner lauded the drink’s lack of milk, noting that they preferred its light and air taste to heavy contemporary American and European recipes. As Mexican pastry chef José Ramon Castillo points out in his blog post entitled “The ABCs of Mexican Chocolate,” the mixture of cacao with water rather than milk, “makes the sensation of the Mexican cocoa butter palpable on the lips, which doesn’t happen with cacao from other countries.”
The chocolate caliente con chile picante (“hot chocolate with spicy chili”) carried the same light texture in its lack of milk but also had a different mouthfeel due to its hot temperature and inclusion of spice. My first sip of the drink was jarring considering that most of the chili flakes were floating at the top of the mug, as pictured below. The spice dimmed down a bit until the drink’s final sips when the grounds at the bottom became salient once again.
Moving from beverages to food, we sampled the tamale chocolate (“chocolate tamale”), a sponge-cake like combination of the country’s two most traditional exports–corn and chocolate. Due to the shop being sold out of pozol–the fermented corn and chocolate drink common in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica–I opted for the tamale in the hopes that I could replicate a similar combination.
It was demure in sweetness, as were the two beverages, but lacked the bite of the chocolate caliente con chile picante or the freshness of the agua chocolate. The three products proved nonetheless to be a strong introduction to the use of cacao outside of chocolate bars. Still in pursuit of the latter, however, I hit the streets of CDMX once again to comb through its many supermarkets and artisanal shops.
Tasting #2: Chocolate Bars
Gathering twelve test subjects from the likes of Australia, the United States, Mexico, and Canada, I conducted my second tasting in the courtyard of the Red Tree House–a small bed and breakfast in La Condesa. The six samples were all made in Mexico, and included Hershey’s 60% Dark Chocolate (Sample A), Ricolino Kracao Milk Chocolate with Pineapple (Sample B), MUCHO Museo’s single-origin Maravilla chocolate (C), Turin 33% Milk Chocolate (D), ki’Xocolatl 72% Dark Chocolate with Spices from Chiapas (E), and Nestle Abuelita Chocolate (F). The results were as follows:
Hershey’s 60% Dark Chocolate (Sample A)/48.90 MXN, 2.54 USD
This Mexican Hershey’s bar is notable for its high cacao content, as compared to the classic American flavor. The bar nonetheless contains milk, in order to replicate the mouthfeel of a pastry as indicated on the packaging. Participants were keen on this chocolate’s high cacao content, some going as far as to guess 80%, and lauded its “beautiful earthy tones.” Two of the participants preferred this chocolate to more expensive single-origin samples.
Ricolino Kracao Milk Chocolate with Pineapple (Sample B, pictured right)/16 MXN, .83 USD
This chocolate-bordering-candy bar was at the tasting’s lowest price point. Participants noted that it was one of the sweetest samples, with “nutty, creamy, [and] floral” tones. Several guessed that the bar contained rice crispy bits or raisins rather than pineapple.
MUCHO Museo’s single-origin Maravilla chocolate (C)/72 MXN, 3.74 USD
This chocolate is a single-origin criollo variety grown in the birthplace of chocolate as we know it–Chiapas. MUCHO began selling this bar at the museum’s inception in 2012. Most of the participants ranked this chocolate their second choice, raving about its bitter lasting aftertaste and fruity tones.
Turin 33% Milk Chocolate (D)/ 63 MXN, 3.27 USD
This milk chocolate was dividing for participants. Some lauded its “caramel, dulce de leche, maple” notes while others decried its taste as “too sweet.”
ki’Xocolatl 72% Dark Chocolate with Spices from Chiapas (E)/99 MXN, 5.14 USD
This 72% dark chocolate, at the highest price point, was the overwhelming favorite among participants. The company was started in 2002 according to their website, with the mission of creating, “Quality products presented with a beautiful and original image that mixes the concept of modernity with the legendary Mayan culture.” Tasting participants were fans of the bar’s “floral” tones and noted flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper.
Nestle Abuelita Chocolate (F)/20.50 MXN, 1.06 USD
The final sample, Nestle’s Abuelita chocolate, was well received despite being typically dissolved in water or milk for hot chocolate. Originally Mexican-born, Nestle acquired the brand in the 1990s. Participants tasted “cardamom, brown sugar, cinnamon, [and] pepper” and noted its “crystalline, crunchy” texture. When interviewing Mexican participants about the chocolate, they shared that most younger generations blend the chocolate into drink form while older generations prefer it plain. It was clear that Abuelita had clear cultural resonance, with several participants noting that they had grown up on the product.
There is no doubt that Mexico City has undergone a revival of Mesoamerican chocolate techniques and traditions through the establishment of museums, chocoloterías, and artisanal shops. Even supermarkets have featured an emergence of offerings, where brands like ki’Xocolatl sit next to modern household names like Nestle and Hershey’s. The question then becomes how to make Mexican-based brands with higher cacao content and less sugar and milk content more moderately priced. If brands are truly fixed on reviving Mesoamerican traditions, like the conceptualization of chocolate as a health food and medical panacea for example, then their products should be accessible and affordable. A $5 chocolate bar is not, after all, the most economically feasible choice.
[i] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 71.
[ii] de Orellana, Margarita, Richard Moszka, Timothy Adès, Valentine Tibère, J. M. Hoppan, Philippe Nondedeo, Nikita Harwich et al. “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico.” Artes de México 103 (2011): 75.
[iii] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 220.
[iv] Norton, Marcy. “Tasting empire: chocolate and the European internalization of Mesoamerican aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111, no. 3 (2006): 660-691.
[vi] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 128.
[vii] Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
*Note: Scholarly sources are featured above, while multimedia sources are embedded.