Cacao Curious by Ellary Allis
While living in Peru this past year, a farmer friend walked up to the table where I was enjoying breakfast, and plopped down a one pound pod shaped like a football. Its rind was the knobby texture of a crocodile exoskeleton colored the tangerine to rose to canary fade of a tropical sunset. I had no idea it was a cacao pod. I had no idea that inside the flamboyant armor, the cacao nut would be nestled in an edible white pulp that tastes like mangosteen flesh. Turns out, I didn’t know a whole lot about the origins of chocolate, that venerated foodstuff made from the beans of the Theobroma Cacao tree.
Theobroma Cacao is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America, where its seeds have held spiritual, medicinal, economic, and gastronomic significance across the cultural landscape of that region since at least 1900 BCE. The Greek derived generic name Theobroma translates to “food of the gods,” and it was indeed revered as such by several major indigenous civilizations throughout Mesoamerica. According to several Maya tales, the Plumed Serpent Cucumatz gifted cacao to humans after the gods discovered it in a mountain following the grandmother goddess Xmucane’s creation of humans out of maize and water. An annual festival held in April celebrated the cacao god Ek Chuah. In Aztec mythology, cacao seeds were gifted to humans by Quetzalcoatl, god of wisdom and learning, patron of Aztec priests, and inventor of books and calendars. The cacao seeds, called cacahuatl, or “sun beans,” by the Aztecs were used as a form of currency, the exclusive form of payment permitted for taxes levied by Aztec rulers. A chocolate beverage that the Aztecs called Xocalatl was used in marriage celebration, funerary rites, and was consumed by Aztec warriors to provide muscle strength and cure ailments. When Cortez landed on the gulf coast of Mexico in 1519, he became the first European to taste Xocolatl, which was served daily at Aztec emperor Montezuma’s royal court in Tenochtitlán.
In Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala especially, cacao ceremonies are currently experiencing a transformative revival, with seekers from across the globe traveling to cacao shamans who facilitate rituals using cacao as a heart-opening conduit to the spirit world.
The field of of nutritional biochemistry now provides evidence of cacao’s health benefits, corroborating knowledge held by the Maya and Aztecs long prior to contact with Europe. Cacao’s unique chemical composition includes over 300 compounds, with theobromine its primary alkaloid. Theobromine is a mild stimulant, a mild diuretic, and relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs. Resveratrol, also present in the food, has antioxidant properties that aid in the prevention of inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. The magnesium in cacao helps to neutralize toxins, calm the nervous system, and heal muscles throughout body. The much-discussed mood boosting effects of cacao are mostly related to its impact on seratonin and phylethylamine (PEA). Raw cacao increases the body’s natural production of seratonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in mood regulation and stress adaptation. PEA, found in small quantities in cacao, is a class of compounds our bodies produce when we fall in love; it triggers the release of endorphins, those morphine-like compounds known colloquially as the pleasure hormone. PEA also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly related to sexual arousal. Little surprise that the Aztecs used recognized cacao as an aphrodisiac as early as the 15th century. Montezuma is rumored to have consumed up to 50 cups of Xocolatl a day.
Below is a recipe for Xocalatl, the traditional Aztec chocolate beverage. Caution: it gets spicy with that Jalapeño in there! Explore and Enjoy!
Xocolatl | Aztec Spicy Chocolate
Jalapeño spiced Hot chocolate, traditional ancient chocolate drink of the Aztecs.
Prep time: 2 mins | Cook time: 2 mins | Total time: 5 Mins | Serves: 2
- 2 Cups Water
- 1 Jalapeño, sliced with seeds
- 2 Tbsp Cocoa powder
- 2 tsp Sugar or more as per taste
- 1 tsp Vanilla extract
- In a saucepan add water and jalapeños and bring it to a boil.
- Then add the cocoa powder, vanilla extract sugar and mix it well until it dissolves completely. Serve it hot.