It may not come to mind when you first think of the word “spice” but cacao and other chocolate products are an important flavorant in Mexican and Latin American cuisine, with ancient roots.
Origin and Names
As far as most people are concerned chocolate has one long term culinary partner: Sugar, however this is a recent development in the life of Cacao as an ingredient. Native to the rainforests of south and central America, the Cacao tree has been a significant part of indigenous cuisines and cultures long before the arrival of Europeans. It was cultivated first in South America over 5000 years ago before becoming a staple of the great Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmecs, the Maya and the Aztecs. Cacao or Cacao powder refers to the processed solids of the cacao bean. The word itself derives from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl, while it’s latin name Theobroma cacao translates to “food of the Gods”, referring to the divine associations the plant had within Mayan culture. The beans were so valued they were even used as a form of currency. Cacao was not usually sweetened and it wasn’t until Europeans started consuming it that chocolate was pigeon holed into being a purely sweet ingredient. The legacy of cacao as a more versatile flavorant can be seen in contemporary Mexican cuisine.
Geography and Cultivation
The Cacao tree is a small tropical evergreen tree which produces large, up to 30cm long, pods which themselves contain dozens of the seeds or cacao “beans”. These beans are removed then go through a process of fermentation, drying and roasting before being ground into Cacao nibs. It is these nibs which are further processed by grinding into cacao liquor, a rich paste which can be separated into cacao butter and cacao powder or made directly into processed chocolate.
The first culinary uses for the plant were drinks, unsweetened hot chocolate being a particular favourite of kings and nobles with dozens of specific recipes for various remedies and purposes. Tejate is a foamy drink in this tradition which is still popular today. Once Europeans began to utilise Cacao as an ingredient it was paired frequently with sugar, as opposed to the local flavourings preferred by the indigenous people. This pairing became so ubiquitous that it has monopolised cacao in the public consciousness and is what most people are familiar with. Processed chocolate confectionery and baked goods are a common treat worldwide. Cacao pairs well with many other flavours from cinnamon to mint, making it incredibly versatile in desserts and puddings.
Cacao nibs or powder can be used as an addition to savory dishes too, the most famous example being the Mexican mole sauces such as Mole poblano. In many mexican dishes chocolate and chillies are paired together, which is a trend that has made it to European confectionery in recent years. There is a great opportunity to experiment with cacao as a spice with some contemporary chefs suggesting its use in marinades and dry rubs for barbecue. Perhaps this misunderstood ingredient could open up a new avenue for flavour in your kitchen today.