Frothy hot chocolate with frangipanis, thick chocolate-chile-almond sauce poured over chicken – Mexico uses cacao in a multitude of ways. But on a global level, these indigenous and local traditions are losing the struggle to Westernized and commercialized packaged chocolates.
For many in Mexico, cacao is more than just a bean. In its preparation, there is resistance, memory, rituals, identity, and friends and family. There’s also a melange of incredible flavors.
However, for most people, food has been reduced to something one consumes, and this commercialization – of cacao, and of other fruits, ingredients, and cooking methods – means there’s a whole gamut of incredible dishes we’re missing out on.
Eli Tosqui works in the market in Cholula, Puebla state. Among the fruit and vegetable stalls, the stalls with 20 kinds of dried chilies, the cheap clothing, and raw meat laid out on tiled counter-tops, she has her own tiny space where she sits and beats the agua de chocolate (chocolate water).
“I have to beat it all day, so that there is plenty of foam. My hands get a bit tired, but it’s necessary,” she tells me.
I chat to her while I drink some from a jicara – a painted bowl that is also made out of the calabash fruit. An indigenous tradition, the bowl typifies the cacao struggle: it improves the flavor of cacao-based drinks and its shape is perfect for one-handed, on-the-go stirring. But here, the plastic cup is taking over.
Most of the agua de chocolate is foam, and so I drink it awkwardly, picking it up with a straw. Ice cold though, it’s incredibly refreshing, and neither sweet nor too bitter.
“To come to Cholula and not drink cacao is like not coming at all. It’s a really important tradition, part of our roots, and going back to our ancestors. Back then (before the Spanish invasion) it was a drink for energy and vigor, and that’s why the fighters drank it, and the upper classes. Now, it’s part of life. I drink it every day, so does my family,” Tosqui says.
A few weeks later I would travel to the Cacao Foam festival in San Francisco Coapan, a tiny town 30 minutes from Cholula. As part of a local annual sacred tradition, local women sat in the community hall around giant pots all day, beating chocolate water into a foam for thousands of visitors. Men – young and old – meanwhile, were sweating and rushed off their feet to serve cacao foam to everyone. We drank and slurped it up from jicaras, and then asked for more.
Five hours to the south-east of Cholula, the markets in Oaxaca city offer even more ways to consume chocolate. For home or restaurant cooking, you can buy fermented cacao, washed cacao, and cacao paste by the kilo from baskets piled high with the ingredients. You can also mix the beans with some cloves, almonds, vanilla, chili, or herbs, and take it to the nearby grinders, where for a small fee, they’ll turn your mixture into a paste.
The eating stalls in the Oaxacan market meanwhile offer cacao-based drinks like tejate, champurrado, and hot chocolate. Many of the drinks don’t contain milk or sugar, making them the healthiest way to reap the many benefits of cacao.
Some of the ways to consume cacao in Mexico
Mole poblano – An intense, very thick sauce usually poured over meats, made from chocolate, four kinds of chilies, tomatoes, almonds, banana, nuts, raisins, sesame seeds, cinnamon, parsley, pepper, onion, and garlic. The chocolate is partly what gives it a rich dark brown color
Mole negro – Similar to mole poblano, but originally from Oaxaca rather than Puebla, and in addition containing roasted avocado leaves, anise, and the herb hojo santa.
Pozol – A cold, thick cacao and corn-based drink. Sometimes people add sugar or chili.
Tejate – A drink dating back over 3,000 years, tejate is made from corn and fermented cacao, as well as flor de cacao – a medicinal plant that isn’t actually the cacao flower. The Mixtecos and Zapotecas still drink it regularly, and you can even just buy it in powdered form and make it at home.
Chilate – Served cold, this drink from the coast of Guerrero is a wonderful mixture of chocolate, rice, and cinnamon – with ice added. It’s an example of the fusion of African and indigenous cultures.
Champurrado – Corn dough or flour, dark chocolate, unprocessed sugar, water or milk, cinnamon, anise seed, vanilla, ground nuts, orange zest, and egg are some of the ingredients you might find in this warm drink, often eaten with sweet bread, churros, or tamales.
Pozontle – This is made in the mountains of Oaxaca from cacao and an indigenous plant, cocolmeca.
Siaab gez – From Teotitlan del Valle, Siaab gez involves fermenting the seeds of the pataxte fruit in holes in the ground, where a river passes through, washing them. The result is what people called “white cacao” – which has a rich aroma and makes the foam thick. Siaab gez is mainly prepared for special celebrations
Bupu – Sometimes coffee is added to this drink with cacao and frangipanis – and it can be drunk warm or hot. People will even often drink it during really hot weather so that it will make them sweat and overcome a harsh climate.
Popo – This is drunk in the south of Veracruz, and parts of Oaxaca and Tabasco, and is a water based drink with ground cacao, rice, cinnamon, anise, and the axquiote plant.
Tascalate – A beautiful cold, bright orange drink common in Chiapas and made with achiote, chocolate, ground pine nuts, corn, vanilla, and sugar
Chocolate atole – One of the most complicated drinks, theobroma bicolor beans are fermented underground for five months, then a paste is made out of them and cacao, wheat, rice, and cinnamon, and water is added, then beat to create the foam. This type of atole is mostly used for rituals and ceremonies.
The importance of chocolate
Rural workers in “Chiapas and Tabasco really can’t end a day of work without pozol,” Patricia Morris, of the Mexico Cacao Foundation told me.
“Cacao is a fruit that requires time, patience, and care. Cacao-growing families have been planting cacao going back to their grandparents or great grandparents,” she said.
And going back even further, before the Spanish invasion, cacao defined the relationship between the Maya and Aztecs; they exchanged it and used it like money. For the Aztecs, cacao was also profoundly symbolic, and it was generally reserved for the upper classes, or for rituals like a wedding, where the bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans, representing abundance.
The Spanish invaders initially resisted chocolate as they didn’t like its appearance. They were the ones though, who ultimately added sugar and vanilla and who changed the production process to produce blocks of chocolate which could then be shipped to Spain.
Nowadays, production of cacao in Mexico is plummeting. Moniliasis affected many plantations, which have also gotten old and been abandoned. Of the formal chocolate industry here, 65% of it belongs to just six companies, including Nestle, Mars, Turin, and Bimbo (Turin and Bimbo are Mexican companies).
Morris also told me that young people are leaving rural areas, and the average age of those working on cacao farms is around 50.
I talked to Saul Valdevieso, a representative of Kakaw, a Mexican organization and museum that promotes Mesoamerican chocolate. “We produce chocolate in a more natural way, one that implies taking more care, without using chemicals. That makes it hard to compete with the multinational chocolate companies, and that in turn affects our economy, and people whose work depends on this,” he said.
Annual chocolate production here is valued at around MXN$ 22 billion – much less than Ghana or the Ivory Coast – and consumption is also surprisingly low, at about 10% per capita compared to European countries. Processed, commercial chocolate here is expensive and of really low quality, and Mexico has found itself importing almost as much as it exports.
Herbert Castellanos Ramirez, also from Kakaw, explained that the price Western countries were buying cacao at; US$2,100 per tonne from various African countries, was a price that Mexico couldn’t compete with. The large chocolate companies “have their own plantations in the African countries … where wages are cheap, often at slavery rates.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Castellanos pointed to national policies that prioritize products “that have nothing to do with our natural environment, like the African palm, or the pine nut.”
Western illusion of choice
Now, European and US companies are making much more money out of Mexico’s old currency, than Mexico. After Europe stole the chocolate industry from Latin America – getting African slaves and poor wage laborers to harvest cacao, then processing and selling it in Europe – Westerners now have a seemingly indefinite choice of chocolate shapes and fillings.
A multitude of designs and shiny packaging grace supermarket shelves, but ultimately, what many mistake for choice, is actually a choice of company or brand, rather than food type.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, “chocolate is more natural. It’s a super-food. It has more than 150 benefits – it’s very healthy,” Valdevieso said.
The Western lack of choice can be seen clearly in other industries like fruit, where Australians, for example, typically have a choice of bananas, apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, plums, peaches, and a few others, in their supermarkets. But Australian native plants include the quandong, which has medicinal properties, kutjera, muntries, riberry, the colourful finger lime, tanjong, kakadu plum, cluster figs, dooja, and so much more.
The bush tucker – food that is native to Australia and consumed by the original inhabitants of the country – doesn’t normally make its way into Aussie kitchens, in the same way that artisan furniture can’t compete with Ikea’s monopoly, and hand-made mole or chocolate water can’t compete with Nestle.
Western supermarkets and even diets have therefore evolved to be very narrow representations of what is culturally, creatively, and naturally available. Westerners’ palettes are typically limited to commodified, soulless, branded food.