AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
25 March 2020
In historical Mesoamerican culture, the commodity of chocolate played a very big role. Used to eat, drink, and even as a form of currency, without chocolate the Mesoamerican region would never be the same. Despite this extreme importance of the chocolate commodity in Mesoamerican culture, there was a difference between its use in Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
According to Hayes Lavis, a curator of cultural arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “The Olmecs of southern Mexico were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 B.C. (smithsonianmag.com)”. He followed this with saying that, “there is no written history for the Olmecs… but pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine” (smithsonianmag.com). By studying the process of making chocolate, it becomes visible that the Olmecs were indeed making chocolate.
The traditional way of getting the chocolate ready to be served is usually not used anymore, as there is better technology for the job. “In traditional preparation methods… farmers take seeds out of the pods, ferment them in a leaf-covered pile” (smithsonianmag.com). To go even more in depth, “The beans, plus surrounding white pulp, have to be left in the warm open air – but turned from time to time – to ferment over nearly a week – by which time the seeds are starting to germinate briefly, and the pulp to evaporate. This is important: no fermentation/germination, no chocolate flavour! They are then cleaned, spread in the sun to dry for up to two weeks, and then roasted for 1-2 hours” (mexicolore.co.uk). Fermentation was the first step in historical Mesoamerican chocolate recipes. After this, “the shells were peeled off one by one (a process called ‘winnowing’), leaving the ‘nibs’ ready to be ground to a paste on a stone metate (pic 3, left). At this point, the paste could be allowed to solidify into a block or tablet (pic 3, right), for easy storage, transport and subsequent use” (mexicolore.co.uk). It is even said that ancient Mesoamerican warriors would carry their chocolate supply like this during war campaigns. This is the default process of grinding the cacao beans. After this, flavors and textures would be added to their liking.
In early Mayan civilization, chocolate rapidly became one of the most important items, however, “despite chocolate’s importance in Mayan culture, it wasn’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful but readily available to almost everyone. In many Mayan households, chocolate was enjoyed with every meal” (history.com). Chocolate, something that is viewed as a candy or dessert in our American culture, was eaten at almost every meal for the Mayans. While chocolate as we know it is enjoyed as a savory treat, “the simplest mix was cacao with ground maize (corn) and water, providing a healthy, ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ gruel, that 16th century Spanish friar Toribio Motolinía described as ‘a very common drink’. Frequently combined with ground chilli, this ‘poor man’s chocolate’ was consumed throughout Mesoamerica” (mexicolore.co.uk). Not only did Mesoamericans drink their chocolate, but they had recipes in which it was considered something healthy. As historical Mesoamericans did not have the technology or services available to us now, “The naturally bitter flavor of cacao came through at full strength in early Maya recipes. ‘This was before they had really good roasting techniques, before they had conching, which is a step that mellows out the flavors, before they started looking at genetics,’ says Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis” (smithsonianmag.com). Over time, as it got towards the end of Mayan civilization, the idea of chocolate evolved, and “cacao drinks in Mesoamerica became associated with high status and special occasions, Palka said, like a fine French wine or a craft beer today. Special occasions might include initiation rites for young men or celebrations marking the end of the Maya calendar year” (smithsonianmag.com).
In Aztec civilization, the idea of chocolate mirrored the later version of Mayan civilization, taking it to an even farther extent. “The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold” (history.com). The value of chocolate rose over time, and people were even using emptied out cacao beans as counterfeit currency! Today, “there are some 20 different species of cultivated Theobrama Cacao tree, each producing its own unique fruit,” however, “most botanists today believe that the Aztecs imported all their cacao from the same criollosubspecies, the most common Mesoamerican variety. The fruit grows directly from the trunk, each ‘pod’ containing some 25-40 ‘beans’, seeds or kernels” (mexicolore.co.uk). With this tree producing a high volume of cacao beans, the use of chocolate increased in Mesoamerica and many new recipes were used to make chocolate beverages. For example, “vanilla vines and annatto trees growing nearby were used to flavor cacao beverages” (smithsonianmag.com). In order to widen the gap between wealthy and poor, royalty and other fortunate people would make their own version of chocolate drinks. “Elite cacao drinks contained pure cacao, to which were added several subtle – and often highly prized – ground and roasted flavourings and spices, rendering them fit for nobles and the very rich. For the Aztecs, the premier flavouring was hueinacaztli, identified by the Coes as ‘the thick, ear-shaped petal of the flower of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, a tree of the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, which grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oaxcaca, and Chiapas’ ” (mexicolore.co.uk).
All in all, in historical Mesoamerican times, chocolate played a huge role in society. By being used as food and drink, a marker of one’s status, and even a form of currency, chocolate became known as a top commodity, and one of value. Now, chocolate is enjoyed all over the world and brings people together in difficult times.
Today when we hear the word chocolate, we often picture a chocolate bar or small treat. We think of a sweet taste and often consumed as a dessert or delicacy. In various forms from luxurious truffles to drugstore bars, chocolate is often found in a person’s life today in a much different way of the past. First discovered by the ancient Mayans, chocolate consumption was not only bitter but also found in different forms than the most commonly present on the market today. The flavour that today’s society associates chocolate with is unparalleled to its original ways of consumption transformed by humans’ decisions to combine cacao powder with various other flavours and spices.
Historically known as cacao in reference to the raw material, cocoa was born as a result of the anglicization of the word cacao in reference to the commodity to be sold or processed. With consumption linked to “unhealthy” or “treat like” ideas, it is to some’s surprise that the main substance in chocolate is found on a cacao tree. Grown on the cacao trees we find cacao pods which are a colourful fruit encapsulating a seed within; the cacao bean. Undergoing processing, cacao beans become a chocolate liquor which can also be referred to as cocoa liquor. Processing this chocolate liquor, we arrive at cocoa butter, which is described as waxy and rather than the brown colour we usually associate chocolate with is actually and ivory-yellow solid (Lecture 2). By pressing the cocoa butter, we get cocoa powder which is frequently used in baking today. To arrive at the chocolate, we know today the seeds of the cacao plant must be roasted, husked and ground, then combined with other flavours, usually sugar and vanilla, to create your favourite chocolate bar.
Going back in time:
Going back in time to the 16th century, Mesoamerican’s classified chocolate as a native good similar to that of beans and squash. Through the use of a Geographic Information System, researchers are able to depict the areas and times in which chocolates flavours differed and how they evolved to the common good today. Representing a luxury during that time, cacao beverages were the most common form of consumption of cacao. These drinks however, were found in combination with goods we don’t usually consume today. Experiences described as “flowery immersion” (Sampeck 2017) provide imagery for the flower additives to the cacao beverages. Having been a luxurious edible as well as medicine, the numerous combinations define its use during early consumption. Cacao was viewed as quite a unique substance at the time, varying from its liquid form to a solid, was solely based on its preparation and preferences of the consumer. With strong ties to religious beliefs, ceremonies, and “superpower” like traits, chocolates ability to be consumed was taken much more seriously in comparison to our consumption today. The evolution of the tastes and flavours associated with each new transformation of chocolate has significant ties to historical advances over the substance’s lifetime.
Recipes: spicy to sweet to floral to umami to nutty to starchy
Chocolate during the 16th century did not describe the solid substance we consume today but rather described one of many cacao drinks. Tools used to create various recipes have also proven to have evolved over time. Originally made with a molinillo, a special type of stirring stick; the finished product was kept in a spouted pot and finally poured into a steep-sided cup. These tools used are much different to the large machines and factories presently involved in the production line for chocolate. Molinillos allowed Mesoamericans the ability to froth the beverage acting similar to a whisk, giving volume to the fatty liquid. In addition to the whisking, pouring from a great height allowed for air bubbles to enter the liquid on its way into the steep cup from the spouted pot. It was most important to the Mesoamericans to ensure that the preparation process such as the one described above be completely accurately in order to achieve the desired flavours for the beverage. Additionally, the variety and degree of ripeness of the cacao bean were just as important as the processing of cacao. Inscriptions in Mayan pottery and archeological remains describe the combination of cacao with honey, flowers, aromatic herbs, achiote, sugar, vanilla, chili, and various fruits (peaches, apricots, oranges) (Sampeck 2017).Original tastes seem to fair on the bitter side while pre-Columbian and colonial period recipes begin to incorporate natural sweeteners.
Used for centuries to whip up a foam on hot-chocolate drinks in Mexican and Central American kitchens
The Princeton Vase: Women on far right demonstrates pouring of chocolate beverage from height
Silver chocolate pot
With recipes varying mostly by geographic locations, the availability of resources determined which flavours were used in combination with the cacao to achieve each concoction. Records show that common spices used in combination with cacao for Europeans include cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, saffron, nutmeg, ginger, and clove (Sampeck 2017). It is evident based on these flavours that the tastes in various parts of the world seem to take individual themes. With Europeans inclined to a earthy, musky, spicier flavour, the Mayans and Spanish preferred a sweeter sensation. The commencement of trading of substances among countries jumpstarted the wide array of recipes that blossomed from attaining new spices and flavours from others. Although each spice added a new dimension to the taste and feeling of consumption of cacao, one of the most important and sought-after combinations for countries on either side of the Atlantic Ocean involved that of honey or fruit.
Recipes from the British impacted chocolate flavours by acting as a generic starting point for much of the creations across Europe having combined cacao with a wide array of ingredients, much more in fact than any other European place. With such a large array of recipes chocolate became an opportunity for each location to explore their environment and preferences to arrive at a combination they chose to consume.
Interestingly, certain recipes continued to have the chocolate name in them when in fact no cacao was included in the mixture. The name stuck due to the similar preparation style to that of chocolate beverages and included combinations of spices and flavours that would typically be found in combination with cacao powder.
Evolution over time:
Beginning in the 18th century, recipes for chocolate began to shift from a liquid substance to a solid matter. As slavery became more prevalent, the production of cacao heightened, allowing it to be used by commoners. The prestigious power of chocolate was stripped with mass amounts being consumed on the daily by all individuals of society. The famous chocolate company Nestle, gave rise to milk chocolate in the 17th century by combining condensed powdered milk, sugar and processed chocolate (Lippi). By 1847, the first chocolate bar was created by a company called J.S. Fry & Sons, made from cocoa butter, powder and sugar. Soon after Lindt curated the conching machine which allowed for production of the creamy chocolate ganache that fills their popular truffles (Klein). The 20th century opened the door to the creation and enjoyment of various chocolate flavoured solid treats, combining large amounts of sugar and other additives in order to ensure preservation and enjoyment (Fiegl).
The production and utilization of cacao continues to be extremely prominent in global economies and cultures. In Mesoamerican history, the use of cacao can be traced to as early as 2000 B.C., where the fruit solely belonged to the elites in ritual. By 400 B.C., cacao seeds began to be transformed into lavish beverages, or “chocolate,” as defined by Mesoamericans. Pre-Columbian regimes “invoked class-based authority” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) of the extractive production of the commodity, and the use of cacao as a chocolate beverage was a delicacy for the noble. However, Mesoamericans utilized the cacao bean itself in a variety of ways. In fact, the refined seed along with the process itself “defined an experience quite separate from other agricultural, consumable products, largely because Mesoamericans consumed cacao in simultaneously discordant and complementary ways: as a ritual offering, as currency, as a flavouring in foods, and as a beverage” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). Cacao is historically unique because of its versatility as a spiritual symbol, a flavoring, a stimulant, a marriage ritual, and most importantly within the context of Mesoamerican culture, a beverage. As shown in the photo below, this chocolate beverage held great significance as a symbol of virtue and celebration in the Mesoamerican regions, as it is given as a beverage at a wedding ceremony.
Historically, the cacao seed itself is highly social and ritualistically significant, and Mesoamerican practices have even had the power to influence today’s use of chocolate.
The ways in which cacao was prepared, consumed, and flavored was not consistent amongst the various regions of Mesoamerica. Pre-Columbian inscriptions and recipes depict that “different spices, colorants, and kinds of cacao” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) used in “various stages of ripeness were emblematic of a particular place; taste and place designated each other” (Stuart 1988). The standard mode of cacao and chocolate preparation was established by the nobility of each region. Terroir, or the impact of the natural environment such as “the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) strongly influenced the variety of cacao use across Mesoamerican regions.
Both “cacao” and “chocolate” are terms that come from Mesoamerican languages, “chocolate” referring to the processed cacao seed in the form of a delicious, highly regarded beverage. However, chocolate was only one of various cacao drinks, so what made Mesoamerican chocolate so unique? Aside from the pre-Columbian nomenclature and the term of “chocolate,” “preparing and consuming cacao beverages were sensory experiences that stood cacao apart from other foods and drinks” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017) The Mesoamerican procedure for conditioning the cacao seeds set the region apart from others: “the distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages – the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot – created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). In particular, the pouring of the hot cacao liquid from a height, conserving the foam, set the drink apart. The photo below depicts this almost sacred act of pouring the heated chocolate liquid from a height, allowing the foam to naturally rise. This technique was specific to Mesoamerican cacao procedures.
The pre-Columbian, chocolate beverage was so alluring because it satisfied social, political, and sensual needs all at once. Though Mesoamericans regarded the foam as the beverage’s most desirable feature, additional ingredients, flavors, and spices that were added to the chocolate not only enhanced the beverage but also differentiated the chocolate from other foods and drinks.
Hot chocolate beverages were more often enhanced by other flavorings than not, and “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction 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” (Mintz 1985). Early colonial Mesoamerican recipes show that vanilla and water, among an array of other aromatic flavors, were delicately incorporated into the chocolate recipes. Depicted in the chart below, Mesoamericans were notorious for incorporating a large variety of secondary ingredients into the chocolate for consumption.
Over time, Mesoamerican recipes also show a European influence, with the adoption of sweetening flavors, and vice versa, Europe obtaining Mesoamerica’s strategy in using the chocolate beverage as a caffeinated stimulant. Between the various colors of the cacao pods, the sweeteners, aromatic flavorings, and herbs, Mesoamericans often incorporated other ailments into chocolate.
A common theme among the additional ingredients that Mesoamericans paired with cacao was the theme of flowers. Despite one’s immediate assumptions, flowers in Mesoamerican life do not symbolize “sentimental, cloying sweetness,” but rather “forces of warfare, power, death, and life” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017). One recipe, in particular, utilizes one of the three flavorings that is known to be highly prized by the Aztecs: hueinacaztli. Hueinacaztli, most importantly “nacaztli” meaning “ear,” or the “ear-shaped petal of the flower” (Mintz 1985). This particular recipe is unique because of its ability to lead to drunkenness, and it’s similarity to beverages that we consume today. Hueinacaztli’s flavor can be described as similar to black pepper, but “other sources compare it variously with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon” (Mintz 1985). These flavor descriptions of warm and hot spices are similar to flavorings that we pair with chocolate today, such as cinnamon, hazelnut, and other blends.
These recipes are historically significant because they demonstrate that one substance, cacao, was able to be modified in so many different ways, utilized by a diverse group of regions, but still able to represent something used by the elite. Chocolate’s ability to simultaneously be used in so many different ways make the substance so unique and distinct in Mesoamerican history.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” The Social Meaning of Food Workshop. The Social Meaning of Food Workshop, 16 June 2015, Budapest, The Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Stuart, D. (1988) The Rio Azul Cacao Pot: Epigraphic Observations on the Function of a Maya Ceramic Vessel. American Antiquity 62 (1), 153-157. –
“Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–95.
Sampeck, Kathryn E. (2017) “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala” Society for Historical Archaeology 2019. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1985.
Chocolate is everywhere. It fills grocery store shelves, gifts, cookbooks, and desserts, even expanding to vinegars and cosmetics. A simple taste of the sweet candy is enough for anyone to decipher why we go crazy for it. It makes sense that businesses would capitalize off of this love, filling stores with variations of flavorings, textures, and purities of chocolate. By rule of supply and demand, the excessive options for chocolate are simply filling our greedy demands, right? However, it was not actually a pure love for the flavor that prompted chocolate’s global expansion, but rather the economic greed of colonizers and businesses.
Chocolate was not a flavor we all inherently liked. In the 1500’s, cacao, the base ingredient of chocolate, was a cause of disgust to many Europeans in their first encounter (Leissle 23). As colonizers entered the New World, cacao already had a strong presence and meaning to natives. The Mayas and Aztecs revered chocolate for religious, traditional, and health purposes (Leissle 28). As such, the powerful, foreign colonizers often encountered the beans as currency, beverages, and ritualistic symbols when dealing with the native rulers. However, those who stayed did not immediately understand the natives’ deep respect for the crop. Girolamo Benzo remarked that chocolate “‘seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year, and never wanted to taste it’” (Coe & Coe 110). This initial distaste for chocolate was not uncommon, and allowed the crop to be passed up for consumption for many years. As seen in the unequal cocoa consumption displayed below, even today, chocolate is not universally loved.
While this may be difficult for us to comprehend today, a taste of a more traditional chocolate drink would shock our modern expectations. Chocolate was not always the sweet solid bar that we know, and love, today. It was originally served as a bitter drink without sugar and mixed with a variety of ingredients like corn and chile (Harp). Europeans did not get used to or accept cacao’s flavor, rather they made it more palatable using sugar and spices, like cinnamon and anise seed, that they were more accustomed to (Coe & Coe 115). The need for other flavors to make chocolate palatable is emphasized by the fact that it did not universally spread to all countries it was exposed to. Countries that increased their sugar production and consumption, namely Britain and the US, also saw rises in chocolate consumption, while countries, like France, who did not adjust their diet towards sugar saw little to no rise (Presentation 3). Due to this distaste for traditional cacao, it would make sense for Europeans to disregard it altogether. However, the process of making it more palatable displays a desire to consume it, an active effort, rather than an inherent liking. This suggests alternative motives to value the crop.
One such motive that is often suggested follows a belief that it was the chemical stimulation of cacao that transformed it into an addictive substance which drove people’s desires to make it more palatable and continue production and consumption. However, while it does contain caffeine, there is nowhere near a high enough level to truly affect us, especially compared to tea and coffee. There is a level of the weaker stimulant theobromine, however again the effects of this would be too weak to explain the craze of chocolate from an addictive standpoint (Leissle 28). Instead of anything physically inherent to chocolate, it was the social and economic value that catalyzed its global spread.
While colonizers did not initially understand the natives’ reverence of the chocolate drink, its monetary presence cemented its importance and initiated a greedy drive to dominate its market. Cacao beans were a form of currency in Aztec and Maya civilization. A currency that the Spanish quickly adapted to and learned to use to their advantage.
As a currency, cacao beans quickly became important to the Spanish government as a resource to exploit in their new territories. This resulted in “a group of people who had never seen or heard of it before… drive its trade” (Leissle 34). To Europeans, the value of cacao began solely as a monetary commodity. This resulted in the Spanish Encomienda system which taxed a certain amount of tribute and labor from the local people, mostly in the form of cacao cultivation. “The Spanish very quickly realised that they could profit from growing and trading cocoa. When they colonised Mexico, they started exporting this drink to Europe, but added sugar to it to make it more to the liking of the Europeans… It gained immediate popularity with the Spanish Court and was in turn savoured by the European élite” (“Museum of the National Bank of Belgium”). As desire for chocolate grew, its price quickly shot up and colonizing powers in Europe became intent on joining the market. As seen below, prices and value of cocoa rose disproportionately to its production level, making it a very economically valuable commodity.
The spread to the common population was similarly driven by economic incentives. With a new product to market, businesses utilized imagery of the wealthy enjoying the deletable sweet to infuse the idea of wealth with their new product to the illiterate masses (Leissle 38). Furthermore, once the hydraulic press was capable of separating the expensive fats from the chocolate liqueur to form cocoa powder, chocolate was integrated into the average kitchen to spread the new product. The spread of chocolate domestically was instigated in the 19th -20th century by “enterprising housekeeping and cooking educators who partnered with industry in the name of ‘domestic science.’ … Walter Baker & Company demonstrated chocolate making with their equipment and offered free samples to visitors. In an attempt to encourage the use of their chocolate in cooking, they also provided free copies of Maria Parloa’s ‘Choice Receipts,’ a recipe brochure with suggestions on how to use chocolate and cocoa in home kitchens” (Martin). This entrepreneurial partnership defines the roots of the creation of a new economic market companies have monopolized on ever since. Four of the five leading chocolate producers, which create over half the chocolate in the world, have been around for over a hundred years. These companies saw a chance to open a new market, dug out their areas, and took every chance to acquire potential competition and monopolize the market (Leissle 75). To this day, the current market is controlled by the original players who first figured out how to turn a currency into a dietary staple. The inherent economic basis of chocolate instigated and continues to drive its expansion into our diet, homes, and pockets.
Martin, Carla. “Brownies.” US History Scene, ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.
In 2014, a flickr user who goes by the username “Kake” posted a visual guide to the London restaurant scene (Flikr 2014) Among the many photos in his album of London storefronts and delicious-looking meals, he shared this photograph of a sign outside of the Paul A. Young Fine Chocolaterie in London, UK. The sign emphasizes, in large bold lettering, an exciting feature on the chocolaterie’s menu: Aztec Hot Chocolate. Below the Aztec Hot Chocolate text, and in a distinctly different color and font style, Paul A. Young details the rest of their offerings, including “Sea Salted Caramel Billionaire Shortbread,” “Sichuan Pepper and Slem,” and “Ginger Pavé and Pavé shards.” These offerings, written in yellow, are more typical of chocolate desserts and are united by their yellow text color. They are described in specific detail, while the Hot Chocolate’s main attention drawing descriptor is that it’s “Aztec.”
Before they were used to describe hot chocolate at a London Chocolaterie, the Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who inhabited the region we now largely classify as Central Mexico between the 14th to 16th century (Smith, 12). Like the Maya, their Southern Mexican predecessors, the Aztecs cherished and cultivated cacao, creating numerous cacao-based food and drinks which soon inspired the Spanish and other nations to introduce cacao and chocolate to their diets. Eventually, cacao and chocolate became global products, commercialized through colonization and exploitative labor practices and making their way to countries like England and the U.S. Paul A Young’s “Aztec Chocolate” is one of many modern-day chocolate products which recognizes chocolate’s origins as a publicity technique, while creating a chocolate product that most likely fails to resemble what scholars actually believe the Aztec’s produced.
The Aztecs primarily consumed chocolate as a drink, but with flavorings and recipes which deviate from how hot chocolate is popularly consumed in the present day. In one of the earliest accounts of chocolate consumption in Aztec society, an associate of the conquistador Hernan Cortes described the Aztec chocolate drink making process. He explains that the cacao is ground into powder, mixed with water, and changed from “one basin to another, so that a foam is raised” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). The anonymous author highlights the process of foaming chocolate drinks, utilized by both the Aztecs and Maya. The Aztecs would pour their chocolate drinks from one container to another to create a foamy texture that they believed to be intrinsic to the chocolate consumption experience. The anonymous author also specifies that the chocolate “is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). Unlike most modern day hot chocolate consumers, the Aztecs consumed their chocolate cold (Coe 83).
Aztec chocolate makers were also immersed in all aspects of the chocolate-making labor, from the cracking of the cacao bean to the mixing of chocolate drink. Much of what we currently know about Aztec chocolate practices comes from Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary who is considered to be the world’s first field ethnographer (Coe 66). One of Sahagún’s native informants described the chocolate making process conducted by a female seller. She crushed and separates the cacao beans, soaks them, aerates them, filters them, grinds them and, finally, stirs in water (Sahagún 1950-59). The seller not only created the final cocoa and water mixture, but also worked with the cacao at every stage of the process. This process differs from that of chocolate-makers and consumers today, who often do not know the process behind the cocoa or chocolate they use to produce their chocolate and chocolate drinks
The Aztec chocolate beverage existed in many variations with different spices and flavorings. Chili was a very popular addition to chocolate, and chocolate makers added it in powder form to chocolate drinks called “Chilcacahuatl” (Coe 86). They also added maize or corn to drinks, making them nutritional and savory (Coe 85). The most popular chocolate flavor among the Aztecs was “cymbaopetalum penduliflorum,” a flower that was both flavorful and potentially inebriating (Coe 88). Absent from these chocolate recipes, however, is sugar or milk, both ingredients which were central to future European and global chocolate recipes (Coe 131). Ultimately, global chocolate production lead to the 1847 British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons creating the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar (History.com 2014).
Chocolate has gone through many transformations since its Aztec origins. Red Online offers some clarity as to the way in which Paul A Young interpreted Aztec-style hot chocolate. A published 2015 recipe includes sugar, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and a variety of spices like chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom and instructs. It instructs the reader to mix and heat the sugar, cocoa, and chocolate in a saucepan and then to add spices. While it adopts the Aztec name, the Paul A Young Aztec-style chocolate drink holds little resemblance to the often hearty and chilled beverage consumed by the Aztecs. The Aztec name serves moreso as its own ingredient, an exotic and exciting reminder of a historic civilization.
An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Totula, “History of Chocolate.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.
Anonymous Conqueror 1556: 306a, cited and translated by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The
True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Coe, Sophie D., and
Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
This blog post will analyze the changes in chocolate recipes through the lense of colonization. The primary text that will be referenced throughout this blog post is Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica by Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn. Sampeck and Thayn contend that “a key to understanding cacao consumption is to see what people in each region selected to emphasize or edit out.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 85). These ‘edits’ as Sampeck and Thayn termed them to be, “[offer] an opportunity to scrutinize how colonizers came to terms with a strange substance and the degree to which the process of learning and modifying involved transforming native understandings and experience as well.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). To aid in their analysis, Sampeck and Thayn utilize “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) modeling [to] [allow] us to assess in a rigorous manner where and when chocolate tastes might have varied.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). The results from the GIS map quantify “how much regional conditions varied geographically and over time.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). This blog post will first delve into the background of cacao and colonization, and then go over the changes in recipes from Mesoamerica to Anglo-America and all the way to Europe. I will then summarize Sampeck and Thayn’s take on the colonization of chocolate before offering my own. In accordance with Sampeck and Thanyn, I contend that the colonization of chocolate is significant because it laid the groundwork for future appropriation of ethnic and exotics foods and cultures (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93).
Cacao cultivate first started in Mesoamerica due to the fertile land and climate (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 74). Cacao “is an important ritual offering and has a range of associations (water, fertility, rebirth), most of which appear to have originated in the pre-Columbian era.” (Cameron McNeil 2009: 341). Cacao was both a “comestible, but also a wealth item […] given as tribute, eventually [becoming] a token of currency.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 75). While cacao was cultivated throughout Mesoamerica, the recipes for chocolate differed from region to region; with different additives added for each region’s preferences(Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 77). In terms of the differences within Mesoamerica, the GIS results discovered that:
“Maya and southern Nahua regions are strongly linked to each other in terms of taste. In contrast, the Peruvian branch is really an isolate, a highly distinct branch. This suggests that these are not just slight differences in tastes but sharply divided lines. Latin America in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries had strongly regional taste.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 88)
When colonizers began to explore Mesoamerica, they became familiar with cacao and chocolate beverages (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 79). Said colonizers “embraced chocolate in the Mesoamerican manner and then spent time coming up with alternative ways to think and feel about it.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 79).
The development of said ‘alternative ways’ of concocting chocolate occurred rather slowly according to the GIS results (Marcy Norton quoted in Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 80). Sampeck and Thayn highlight a key finding in the GIS results in which “within a mixed group of America, French, English and Mesoamerican recipes, the Mesoamerican ones sort out as a set of ingredients that Europeans and Anglo-Americans did not copy exactly.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89). The differences in recipes could be attributed to taste preferences, or could be due to the lack of availability of predominantly Mesoamerican resources (especially in the case of Europeans) (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89-90). Sampeck and Thayn highlight the geneticist N.I, Vavilov’s finding that “as a cultigen moved from its area of domestication, selectie forces not present in the homeland would make new characteristics favorable.” (N.I. Vavilov quoted in Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89). If we are to concur Vavilov’s finding, then it would follow that the Europeans and Anglo-Americans by default had to alter chocolate recipes (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 90). Dr. Carla Martin and Sampeck contend in their chapter The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe, that “the earliest European recipes in many sense follow in many sense the Mesoamerican flavor profile, but by using much more familiar and established flavourants acquired through trade or produced in Europe, such as cinnamon, anise, and pepper.” (Carla Martin and Kathyrn Sampeck 2017: 42).
Sampeck and Thayn conclude that “the patterning suggests a chronological shift away from Mesoamerican ingredients, perhaps more gradually from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century as recipes from those periods are not as well differentiated from each other compared to later recipes.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 90). Furthermore, “changes in just what chocolate was at home and abroad show that ‘chocolate’ was a vehicle for defining new relations with the colonial economy, tastes of the body politics, and colors of changing social realms.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 95). Sampeck and Thayn’s findings beg the question: why is the gradual change in chocolate recipes significant?
I concur with the premise of a subset of Sampeck and Thayn’s argument; ingesting chocolate has ‘become so commonplace’ that chocolate has begun to arguably loose “part of the allure […] [it’s] strangeness.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). Colonizers shifted “centers of cacao production […] from places of indigenous production in Mesoamerica such as the Izalcos to plantations employing coerced or enslaved labor […]” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). In essence, colonizers took over chocolate (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). They took something that was a local process and tradition and capitalized it and turned it into a process that is no longer recognizable (recipe-wise and production-wise) (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). Yes, the process of cultivating cacao and making chocolate is more efficient now than it used to be, but one could argue that chocolate has lost what made it once so special to Mesoamericans (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). While Mesoamericans “continue to cultivate or purchase cacao, using it in beverages and foods and in rituals,” the same cannot be said for the Western world (McNeil 2009: 341). This is significant because the colonization of chocolate provides the framework for the future appropriations of ethnic and exotic foods and cultures across the West. As stated by Sampeck and Thayn: “we rob chocolate of its flavor by letting present experiences overdetermine how we understand it in the past.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 95).
Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, 72-99. Austin, 2017: University of Texas Press.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. Special Issue 3 (2015): 37-60. doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
McNeil, Cameron L. “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica.” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 17. University Press of Florida, 2009.
In 2017, consumers in the United States spent over $22 billion on chocolate and ate an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person. That chocolate is consumed in many forms: mass-market Hershey’s Kisses, melted chocolate covering a strawberry, chocolate powder warmed up with milk to be drunk, or an artisanal cacao bar, just to name a few. Chocolate has become so desirable and pervasive in our society that Kay Jewelers even has a collection of chocolate diamond rings.
In understanding the history of chocolate, it is important to consider early Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. In the interest of brevity, I will focus exclusively on the Mayan civilization below. My hope is that by examining a traditional Mayan chocolate recipe, and the societal context of chocolate in classical Mayan society, one will better understand both the evolution of chocolate and also Mayan society itself. At the risk of sounding dramatic, chocolate can be an incredibly powerful way of comprehending history.
The Classical Mayan Civilization
I begin with a map of the general location of the Mayan civilization (below). I have chosen to include this map for two reasons. The first is that in understanding Mayan cacao, it is necessary to think about environmental factors that dictate nuances such as the characteristics of the Mayan cacao trees and pods. For instance, cacao can only be grown in certain ranges of latitude, but even within that range, temperature and climate differences dictate the nature of the cacao pods in a given location (Coe and Coe, 2007). But the map is also worth keeping in mind when considering the spatial relation of cacao to other civilizations. From its origin in the Amazon Basin, cacao spread to Mesoamerican civilizations, and gradually to continents far and wide through institutions such as colonialization. In understanding how civilizations engaged with cacao, it is useful to keep a mental image of a map so as to understand how other cultures then created their own cacao recipes as it moved geographically around the world.
Although the so-called classical Mayan era occurred over a millennium ago in the years of 250AD through 800AD, historians have nonetheless been able to piece together aspects of the Mayan civilization through various means: artifacts, linguistics, and written documents, to name a few. Among these methods have been the work of epigraphers such as Yuri Knorosov which has allowed for historians to be able to read texts from the era such as the Dresden Codex (Coe and Coe, 2007). Being able to read books such as the Dresden Codex have in turn shed great insight into how the Mayan civilization engaged with cacao.
Mayan Engagement with Cacao
From the Dresden Codex, for example, historians have been able to conclude that cacao had a place in ritualistic spheres of the Mayan civilization, with descriptions of the gods engaging with cacao (Coe and Coe, 2007). From the Madrid Codex, historians have learned of a powerful connection between human blood and chocolate in Mayan civilization (Coe and Coe, 2007). And from chemical analysis of residue on artifacts, researchers have been able to learn about the vessels through which cacao was enjoyed. While cacao thus held several ‘uses’ of sorts, whether for rituals or consumption, a common misconception is that cacao in Mayan civilization was solely enjoyed in pure form as a drink. Instead, as Coe describes, “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction 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” (Coe and Coe, 2007, p48). This serves as a nice segue into thinking about a Mayan recipe for cacao.
Mayan Chocolate Recipe
To modern-day Americans, a foodstuff recipe typically consists of a list of ingredients described in precise quantities and orders that result in an end-product ready for consumption. However, the use of the word recipe for the Mayans is much broader (Hull, 2010). From a Mayan recipe for chocolate, we can gather information such as the contexts in which cacao was consumed, the methods of preparation, and characteristics of a society-at-large.
Consider the chocolate recipe of sorts that was deciphered by David Stuart and others. In scenes depicted on vases, we can see the process by which Mayans frothed the chocolate beverage. The very act of frothing the beverage shows us a specific, integral feature of the Mayan chocolate. We concurrently see writings that mention flavorings that were added, such as chilli (Coe and Coe, 2007). The types of ingredients added to cacao help us to imagine flavor profiles of the Mayan diet, but also to then compare to later iterations of chocolate found in countries such as England with high levels of added sugar (Mintz, 1986). Finally, vocabulary related to chocolate are an integral part of the recipe. For instance, the term ‘tac haa’ related to fathers’ of a future married couple meeting and discussing the prospect of a wedding over chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2007). A vital component of the Mayan recipe was thus the social aspect of consumption of chocolate.
The image included below summarizes some of the above components of the recipe. For instance, the depicted drinking cup would be placed on the ground and have chocolate poured into it from an above height for the purposes of frothing. It also has elaborate depictions on the outside of the cup which are one of the many ways that historians and researchers have been able to piece together the very ‘recipes’ of the ancient Maya.
Lessons from the Recipe
A great deal can be learned from what may appear above to be a simple recipe. For instance, we can think about how different recipes reflect the broader nature of a civilization. The Mayan recipe seems to focus on cacao as a social experience rather than a commodity. Sidney Mintz’s observations on how sedentary civilizations over time demand more complex carbohydrates in their diets then allows us to understand how recipes evolved to include more sugar and other such ingredients (Mintz, 1986).
While the classical Mayan civilization may have fallen more than a millennium ago, the idea of Mayan chocolate has been both idealized and profit-ized; it has become synonymous with chocolate from a past era, eliciting feelings of more natural and wholesome cacao. The included National Geographic video (below) for instance, profiles a chocolatier in Guatemala who is claimed in the video to employ a present-day version of Mayan chocolate making. While the authenticity may be disputed, the genuine interest in understanding distant cultures and societies persists nonetheless.
Ultimately, learning about the Mayan recipe has also made me want to be more cognizant of the deliberate choices that are made in the preparation of foodstuff. For instance, it is not only the ingredients that are selected that matter, but also the exacting methods (such as frothing of chocolate for the Mayans) that go into the final presentation.
Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and
Hull, K., Staller, J., &
Carrasco, M. (2010). An Epigraphic Analysis of Classic-Period Maya Foodstuffs.
In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary
Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica (pp. 235-256). New York, NY: Springer New
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.
A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes
Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.
The Lacandón Maya lived in the
cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón
were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous
interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their
dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary
practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant
considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes.
Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao
consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked
culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose
of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and
historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating
the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.
Secular cacao recipes and uses
One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).
The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.
Sacred cacao recipes and rituals
Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.
Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.
The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.
Works Cited: Scholarly Sources
Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR
Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University
Press of Colorado, 2009.
Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True
History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya:
An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University
of Arizona Press, 2008.
Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA,
Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.
Works Cited: Multimedia Sources
72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur
Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J.
Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day. Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.
In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques. They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)
Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims
In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.
For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)
Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain. Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”. (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century. From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came. From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar. (Watson, 30)
Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East. It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology. (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar. Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)
“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples. Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)
There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well. Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe. In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba. He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).
Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane.
The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad. (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar). Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink). The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic. Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Norton, M. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review3 (2006): 660-91. Web.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.
Raposo, Jacqueline. “Hey Chef, What Savory Dishes Can I Make With Chocolate?” Web log post. Serious Eats. 10 Feb. 2015. Web.
“White Chocolate Baba Ghannouj.” Saveur11 Feb. 2103. Print.
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.