Food of the Gods

by The Gilded Fork

by Mark C. Tafoya

It’s hard to deny the far-reaching popularity of chocolate as a sweet treat in just about every nation. People of all cultures love their sweet, rich, creamy chocolate desserts, and although there are small differences in the ways that people consume their chocolate fix, the fact remains that the combination of dark, rich cocoa and sugar has penetrated the collective consciousness of the planet to become the most popular sweet treat worldwide. In fact, it is said that chocolate is the third largest food commodity in the world, after coffee and sugar (hmm, notice a trend here?).

Whether it’s Baci in Perugia, Kisses in Pennsylvania, creamy cocoa with marshmallows in Kent, thick Chocolate con Churros in Salamanca, or even Hannukah gelt, the ubiquity of sweet chocolate desserts and candies has become an unchallenged fact of life. In the Western world, we have even made chocolate the universal gift of choice on St. Valentine’s Day, a Saint’s day originally celebrating the bloody martyrdom of a beheaded Roman convert!

But the origins of chocolate were not always so sweet; it takes looking back to the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica to find that chocolate was originally enjoyed as a savory concoction, and an important part of religious rituals. It has long been thought that the Maya of southern Mexico were the first to drink cacao, but recent evidence suggests that the first culture to eat chocolate were the Olmec. Teapots were recently discovered with fossilized cocoa in the bottom, moving back the origin of chocolate more than one thousand years to 2,600 years ago. Scientists took scrapings from the residue found in the bottom of several vessels discovered in northern Belize; this residue tested positive for theobromine, the chemical compound found in chocolate.

The Olmec, who were the ancestors of the Maya and the Aztec, were prominent in the southern Gulf of Mexico from 1500-500 BC, and spread their influence throughout what is now known as Central America. They discovered that the pods of the cacao tree produced a pleasant and stimulating effect. In fact, chocolate’s scientific name, theobroma cacao, pairs the ancient Olmec word for chocolate (cacao) with a Greek term meaning “food of the gods” (theobroma). (Theobroma itself is from the Greek theos, meaning god, and broma, meaning food.)

This small cacao tree is native to the Equatorial rain forests of Central and South America, and the Olmec discovered that the soft white flesh and seeds found inside the greenish-yellow pods could be fermented to a rich dark brown, then dried and roasted to produce cocoa paste.

The Maya, who were prominent in Southern Mexico between 500 BC and 1500 AD, drank chocolate with nearly every meal. Unlike the sweet, thin hot cocoa we know and love, the xocoatl drunk by the Maya when the Spanish Conquistadors discovered them in the early 1500s was a thick, savory drink mixed with local herbs, maize, and honey. Spanish accounts of the period illustrate that the Maya poured the thick liquid back and forth between two vessels from a height, which produced a thick foamy head due to the fat in the cocoa butter.

Like yams in Papua New Guinea, cacao beans were so valued in Mayan culture that in addition to their use as a drink, they were also used as currency; they would be traded for valuable commodities like cloth or gems. It is said that one hundred cacao beans could buy a slave, while it only took four beans to buy a pumpkin.

The Aztecs, who dominated most of Mexico and had vanquished the Maya by the time the Spanish arrived, adapted the drink to make cacahuatl, to which they added chile water. The pungent spiciness of the capsacim enhanced and intensified the taste of the chocolate. This has influenced a number of experimental gourmands in recent years, and it’s not uncommon to see many gourmet truffles today with a hint of chile added.

The center of Aztec culture was Tenochtitlan, the site of present-day Mexico City. Because the Aztec lived farther north than the Maya, and their arid climate did not allow for the growing of cacao trees, they exacted tribute from the Maya in the form of cacao beans. Chocolate became an important part of everyday culture, with royal and common people alike enjoying the drink.

Over time, the exiled Aztec god Quetzacoatl became associated with cacao. The devotees of his cult believed that he remained among them in the form of the cacao tree. When the Spanish arrived with their white-sailed ships, the Aztec believed them to be the magical vessels of Quetzacoatl returning to them, so they welcomed the invaders.

Moctezuma, the Aztec king, offered the Spaniards his favorite drink, which he consumed from a golden goblet several times a day. He would drink large quantities of chocolate before visiting his harem for lovemaking, a fact which contributed to chocolate’s long being considered an aphrodisiac. This claim has been tested, and recent discoveries show that after eating chocolate, the brain releases Phenylethylamine and Seratonin, two compounds which help to produce both calming and euphoric effects. Moctezuma knew what he was doing!

One of the most popular non-sweet uses of chocolate is in Molé Poblano, a thick, savory sauce made from a combination of chiles, spices, and unsweetened cocoa, which is said to have originated in the state of Puebla, south of Mexico City. One popular legend has it that the nuns of the convent of Santa Rosa invented the dish to impress visiting church dignitaries in the 17th century. According to the legend, the nuns simply emptied out the contents of their pantry, adding over thirty spices and herbs, and simmering the sauce for several days before serving it over turkey. This may or may not be true, as it’s more likely that a form of molé existed in the Mayan tradition for centuries.

To celebrate the euphoric effects of the cacao bean, and to present you with alternatives to the wonderful chocolate sweets we are used to, we present a traditional Mexican molé that captures the fire of peppers, the silken sweetness of chocolate, and a time-honored cooking ritual.

Mark Tafoya is the Executive Chef of the Gilded Fork, and the chef/owner of ReMARKable Palate Personal Chef Service in New York , NY . His website, food blog, and podcast can be found at www.ReMARKablePalate.com.

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