Suitcase and World: Chocolate.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Mmmmm....I love chocolate, especially über dark chocolate. I love that bite of sweet chocolate with bitter undertones. So, so addictive for me.

Chocolate and Mexico go hand in hand not only because the cacao tree is native to this part of the world but because the Aztecs and the Maya had started processing the pods into chocolate long before the Spaniards set foot on their land.  The first people clearly known to have discovered the secret of cacao were the Mayans of the Classic Period (250-900 AD).

The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.
A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for
a whole day without food."
Montezuma II  (1502-1520)
Food of the Gods. Spanish conquistadors brought the cacao pods back home to Spain where new recipes were created from the processed paste.  Soon, chocolate spread through Europe and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thanks to the Europeans, we think of chocolate as a sweet candy or drink but during the Classic Period, Mayasn actually drank chocolate as bitter beverage   Cacao paste was mixed with water, chili peppers, masa and other ingredients to make a frothy, spicy chocolate drink that was the predecessor of champurrado, Mexico's version of hot chocolate.

Cacao also played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests often served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies and presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods.

By 1400, the Aztec empire dominated a sizeable segment of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs traded with Maya and other peoples for cacao and often required that citizens and conquered peoples pay their tribute in cacao seeds—a form of Aztec money. Like the earlier Maya, the Aztecs also consumed their bitter chocolate drink seasoned with spices—sugar was an agricultural product unavailable to the ancient Mesoamericans.  And like the Maya, chocolate was a precious food commodity reserved primarily for royalty and religious events.

Today, everyone gets to enjoy in this treat.  In Mexico, chocolate is still made from dark, bitter chocolate paste mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes nuts. The end result is a "grainy" less smooth product. Chocolate is frequently purchased in "disks" although it is also available in bars and syrups.

I found something very similar when I was in Guatemala and couldn't resist buying a wheel of the chocolate.  It's not quite as smooth as the Belgian or Swiss chocolates but I think the flavor is much more intense.  I've not yet decided how I will use the chocolate as I'm still reserving for a special occasion.

Champurrado is the Mexican version of hot chocolate.  It is a warm and frothy concoction of chocolate, masa, cane sugar and spices like cinnamon and vanilla.

Champurrado is often served with churros (yum, churros) for breakfast.  I'm typically not a hot chocolate person but any excuse to eat churros (yum, churros) and I'm all for it!  Did I mention I love churros? :-)

Okay, back to chocolate and champurrado.

You can't make champurrado without a molinillo, at least not if you want to make it the right way.

A molinillo is a traditional Mexican tool used to froth hot chocolate or milky coffee. This tool was actually invented by the Spaniard colonists in Mexico around the 1700's. Prior to the invention of the molinillo, chocolate was froth by pouring it from one cup to another. The molinillo is rolled back and forth between the palms of the hands to aerate the mixture until it is frothy.

Cacao is also the star ingredient in another quintessentially Mexican dish, mole.

Mole is a general term for a sauce that is an intoxicating blend of native Mexican ingredients such as 
dried, ground chiles, enriched with seeds, nuts, or raisins and flavored with a wide range of herbs and spices.  The truly special moles also have chocolate as an ingredient.

Making mole is an all-day process because at least 30 ingredients need to be roasted, ground, mixed and blended by hand  to ensure a smooth and creamy sauce.There are no shortcuts or quick-fix versions, but food processors do make it less time-consuming.

Because mole takes so much time to prepare, it is usually made in huge batches, too large for the home blender to handle. Therefore, women take their mole ingredients, all cooked and ready to blend, to large “molinos” or grinders in their neighborhood. The mole is passed through the grinders and comes out smoother than you could get from your home blender. It is not unusual to see women walking home from the molinos with buckets of mole for a fiesta.

Land of the Seven Moles.  Today, Oaxaca has the reputation as Mexico's best state for mole, followed by Puebla and Veracruz. The famous "seven moles of Oaxaca" compose a rainbow of earthy colors:  Amarillo (yellow and usually spicy-hot), Coloradito (spicy and reddish); Verde (fresh, green, and herbaceous), Rojo (red and usually sweet), Chichilo (dark and smoky), Manchamantel (a fruit-based sweet-and-sour mole), and Negro (black mole, known for the inclusion of cacao among its many ingredients, though it gets its color from blackened chiles). 

Mole Poblano is the most famous of Mexico's cacao infused sauces and it is the sauce of Puebla. The basic mole poblano recipe has the following ingredients: mulato chili, pasilla chili, ancho chili, tomatoes, bread, tortilla, onion, garlic, toasted chili seeds, chocolate, chicken stock, banana, lard, almonds, sesame seeds, salt and spices such as pepper, clove and anise.

Painting by Diego Rivera

Even the basic blend of mole poblano  sounds so intriguing to me. So many ingredients to have to balance not only the flavors of but the spice level of the chilis as well!  The more I read about how mole is made, the more I am convinced that it takes a very skilled cooked with a very refined palate to make mole.

Combined with turkey, mole poblano transforms a dish of  humble poultry into a culinary delight that some foodies would consider to be Mexico's National dish, mole poblano de guajolote.

I've never had champurrado and I can't recall ever eating mole so I'm intrigued by what both taste like especially mole with its complex flavor profile.  Of course, not that I want to hoard chocolate but if I find a wheel of something interesting, it's coming in my pack with me!  Mmmm....maybe a Mexican chocolate fondue with tropical fruits and churros. That might be something worth experimenting with!