The history of chocolate

“They considered it a food of the divine realm…”

by Parvin Kumar


Theobroma Cacao, food of the gods, hardly an exaggeration. Chocolate is a delicious and popular food group. If you’re not in agreement consider yourself uniquely extraordinary, mysterious or incomprehensible. Perhaps you’d rather wax lyrical about coffee. I grant you that. But now let’s talk about chocolates. Chocolate loving is a cosmopolitan affair. You can imbibe the thick warm liquid as ancient American cultures did or eat it as a candy, a relatively modern and European affair. Some have rules for how they eat the creamy blocks. One such routine as follows: Break a small piece. Let it rest on your tongue. Feel it melt away with your troubles. Theobroma Cocoa is indigenous to the luscious tropical forests of America. We have the Mayans and the Aztecs to thank for discovering the food of the Gods, but Linnaeus a Swede to thank for that particular appellation. Today the crop is grown in most of the world’s tropics and spurs a multibillion dollar trade. On the production end you could be a cocoa farmer, a chocolate maker, a chocolatier, a food scientist, an Oompa Loompa or a cocoa climatologist. On the consumption end; well, there’s the rest of us.

But now let’s talk about chocolates. Chocolate loving is a cosmopolitan affair.


Cocoa production occurs in the tropical regions of the world about 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Today several African countries lead the production in cocoa. The cacao flower is pollinated by a gnat midge and hence the cacao bean is conceived. From pollination to the maturation of the pod it takes about 6 months. The plant flowers perennially and so it is common to find a plant with flowers and pods that have varying states of maturity. The farmer is very careful to make sure that a pod is fully ripe before harvesting as this determines the quality and the taste of the derived cocoa products. Harvest is done by hand as it has been for many centuries. The harvested pods are smashed with a machete and then prepared for fermentation and roasting. The roasting ensures that unwanted germination does not ensue and the fermentation melts the pulp away from the cocoa beans but not before imparting their flavor to the cocoa beans. Next the enriched and fermented beans are laid out on flats and dried in the sun. Now they are ready to change hands: from cocoa farmers to Oompa Loompas at the chocolate factory. The beans are first sieved and cleaned to remove unwanted non-chocolate making entities. The beans themselves are then winnowed to remove hulls then ground into a paste or made into chocolate liquor. The Dutching process uses alkali salts to reduce the bitterness of cocoa and extract a tangible mass. The paste or cocoa mass is mixed with other ingredients to give us the holy trinity of chocolate: dark, milk and white. The world of chocolate making is complex with many technical and chemical steps between the beans of the cocoa pod and the truffles which you purchase at a master chocolatier in Switzerland. It is a common travesty that chocolate is much more accessible to the rich world even while the beans come from lesser developed agrarian economies. It is often that the farmer who grows the crop for its monetary value has little knowledge of what a chocolate bar tastes like.

Theobroma cacao, Photo: Malcolm Manners (Flickr)
Theobroma cacao, Photo: Malcolm Manners (Flickr)

The first people to experiment with the beans of the cocoa tree were the Olmecs of modern day Mexico. They brewed a drink from the beans which was thought to be invigorating, damn right they were. The Mayans and the Aztecs of central and North America 8th century AD offered hot chocolate in chalices to the Gods in gratitude. They considered it a food of the divine realm that had been bequeathed as a gift to humanity. Archaeological evidence suggests that cocoa was creatively taken together with honey, cornmeal, vanilla, chili and the dried flowers of Mesoamerican trees. One anonymous spanish colonial of the Americas describes how the Aztechs made a chocolate drink.

“These seeds which are called… cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins… and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit. This drink 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.”

The value of this drink to cure hunger was perhaps the basis for its use as a currency.


The value of this drink to cure hunger was perhaps the basis for its use as a currency. The following list gives us an idea of how the beans were traded with other commodities of value.

1 good turkey hen = 100 cacao beans

1 turkey egg = 3 cacao beans

1 fully ripe avocado = 1 cacao bean

1 large tomato = 1 cacao bean

The Spanish Colonials were the first to introduce chocolate as a beverage to Europe. They used the term chocolatl a marriage between the Mayan word for hot ‘chocol’ and the Aztec word for water ‘atl’. The reason for this was that the word Cacao sounded similar to the term for feces in romance languages. In the 16th and 17th century Europe, hot chocolate quickly became a drink to improve health. In the Baroque era it was a prescribed medicine of the humoral medicine system. As in the Mesoamerican cultures it was mainly a drink that was afforded and consumed by the elite and thus was a symbol of status. The consumption of solid chocolate bars and candy was made possible only after the Dutching process was invented by Van-houten. This paved the way for making everything chocolaty from Snickers to chocolate cakes. The rest as they say is history.

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