The Olmec Indians are believed to be the first to grow cocoa beans as a domestic crop. The consumption of cocoa beans was restricted to the Mayan society’s elite, in the form of an unsweetened cocoa drink made from the ground beans. The cacao beans were used as currency. 10 beans would buy you a rabbit or a prostitute. 100 beans would buy you a slave. Some clever person even came up with a way to counterfeit beans – by carving them out of clay. The beans were still used as currency in parts of Latin America until the 19th century!
The cacao tree, which chocolate comes from, originated in Mesoamerica. Native Peoples used the cacao tree to produce a potent drink that is a far cry from the modern sweet incarnations of chocolate today. Historians disagree over where exactly in Mesoamerica the trees first appeared, but what they do agree on is that people first began to prepare cacao for human enjoyment in Mexico. Native Peoples used cacao beans to make drinks, as religious offerings, and they were even used as a from of currency. Nowadays, when people think of Mexican chocolate, they picture the cinnamon-scented variety commonly used in many Mexican style dishes and beverages.
The chocolate prepared in Mexico in pre-European Mexico possessed a strong, sour taste different from modern chocolate. It is well-known that Native Peoples prized this chocolate and used it in a variety of dishes and drinks. The first known large-scale “farmer” and consumers of chocolate were the Mayans, who inhabited Central Mexico.
The Aztecs, who rose to dominance after the Mayans, inherited the Mayan affinity for chocolate, which became even more culturally significant for them than it had for the Mayan people. Chocolate was a symbol of power and authority to the Aztecs, and people even used cacao beans as currency. The cacao beans were so valuable, that counterfeiting by filling cacao shells with clay was not uncommon.
The most popular use of the cacao bean in pre-European Mexico was to produce a chocolate drink. To make the drink, producers fermented, toasted, and ground the cacao bean into a powder which provided the drink’s base. Often, people used different spices such as chiles, anise seed, allspice, and vanilla to add flavor. While this drink was a favorite among the rich, it was also religiously significant. The Aztecs gave the drink to human sacrifices to purify them. The Spanish also quickly developed a taste for chocolate not long after their arrival in Mexico. They then introduced it to Europe where a hot chocolate like drink became very popular.
Modern Mexican chocolate still retains many qualities of its predecessor. Makers still use some of the same spices as the Aztecs, as well as cinnamon and sugar to produce a chocolate with a unique flavor, texture, and aroma. It provides the base for hot chocolate beverages and serves as a key ingredient to several Mexican dishes such as Mole. Mexican chocolate is best recognized when sold in the form of small solid discs. The Spanish began the practice of storing chocolate in the shape of discs in the 1500s, and it continues to today. The modern world owes thanks to Mexico’s long history with chocolate for providing one of the world’s favorite treats.
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina