A candy bar is to Mexican chocolate what a box of macaroni and cheese is to traditional Italian pasta. Most of us simply have no idea what real chocolate is as most of the chocolate sold on the market today is covered by sugar and other additives and ingredients. Real chocolate – that which has been considered the “food of the gods” in the Mayan cultures of southern Mexico – is something completely different.
Chocolate comes from the cacao seed which grows on the tree of the same name. Most people don´t know that the cacao fruit is actually a very sweet tropical fruit, though the most treasured part of the plant is the seed within the fruit. Cacao seeds are dried, toasted, and then ground into powder to eventually be made into chocolate.
Even the Greeks knew that something was special about chocolate. The Latin word for the cacao tree, where chocolate comes from, is called Theobroma cacao. Cacao is a Mayan word, but Theobroma is Greek for “the food of the gods.”
In southern Mexico and other places throughout the ancient Mayan Kingdom, cacao has always been an essential part of the culture. Archaeologists have found pottery dated to the 8th century A.D. with images devoted to a cacao god. Whereas we westerners have come to prefer our cacao sweet, the Mayans used cacao for a variety of dishes including hot chocolate, porridges, and powders. Mexican mole sauce, usually served over chicken or beef, is a traditional sauce that combines spicy peppers with cacao.
The ancient Mayans also mixed cacao powder with a variety of flavorings. Vanilla, hot peppers, honey, allspice, and other traditional seasonings were all added to cacao to create unique flavors. An anonymous Spanish conquistador, who traveled widely throughout the Mayan Kingdom of present day Guatemala and Mexico, wrote an elegy to the wonders of chocolate in 1556. He wrote that “this drink (hot chocolate) is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
Cacao was so important for the ancient Mayans that the cacao seeds were even used as money to facilitate trade and commerce throughout the Mayan Kingdom. Ancient Mayan codes that have been deciphered reveal that in some parts of the Mayan world, a mature turkey could be bought for 100 cacao beans, while a ripe avocado would go for one cacao bean.
For those travelers who are interested in learning about what real chocolate tastes like, there are many options to travel to southern Mexico in order to learn about traditional chocolate cultivation and ancestral ways of processing and preparing the drink of the gods. Though coffee production was introduced to Mexico and Central America in the mid-1800s and began to displace traditional cacao forests, there are still thousands of traditional Mayan communities that continue to grow chocolate and maintain the traditions of their ancestors.