National Bittersweet Chocolate Day: All About Cacao’s Mexican Roots

chocolatl BeLatina

You can thank Mexico for that piece of sweet dark brown heaven you eat daily that can be as good as sex sometimes. While the Arabs have their coffee, the Asians their tea, the Mexicans pride themselves with their invention of chocolate making. It’s not only a food fit for the gods that tastes divine and gives them energy but historically, it forms part of their cultural identity. Let’s take a look back at chocolate’s Central American roots to celebrate National Bittersweet Chocolate Day.

The culinary art of cacao making, which consists of roasting and grinding fermented cacao beans and mixing them with different ingredients in order to create chocolate, actually dates back to early Mesoamerica and not Belgium as many might think.

While ethno-botanists say that the two original strains of cacao came from South America, the plant and the fruit eventually made its way by animal, bird, or human to Central America, according to Smithsonian Magazine. After that, the Olmecs of southern Mexico are said to have fermented, roasted, and ground the first cacao beans for drinks, possibly as early as 1500 B.C. Hayes Lavis, a cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian told the magazine that “pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine.”

So did the Mexicans eat chocolate as a dessert-like most of the world does?  

Some say that early civilizations saw chocolate as an ancient medicine and aphrodisiac. Another source cited a letter the conquistador Cortez wrote to King Carlos I of Spain about “xocoatl,” a drink that “builds up resistance and fights fatigue.” And one officer serving Cortez reportedly observed the Aztec ruler Montezuma “drinking more than 50 cups per day of a frothy chocolate beverage mixed with water or wine and seasonings including vanilla, pimiento, and chili pepper.” Fifty cups a day? Hm. Historians believe that´s a bit of an overstatement. And it´s assumed that the Spanish also probably attributed medical benefits to chocolate that the Maya didn’t. It was simply part of their diet, like maize, and they knew it made them feel good. 

chocolate BELatina

As to the etymology of the word chocolate, while Merriam Webster Dictionary says it comes from the Nahuatl word chocolatl, not all are convinced this is true. According to Exploratorium, Michael Coe, Professor of Anthropology at Yale, and author of The True History of Chocolate, argues that the word chocolatl appears in “no truly early source on the Nahuatl language or on Aztec culture.” Coe cites the Mexican philologist Ignacio Davila Garibi´s theory that the “Spaniards had coined the word by taking the Mayan word chocol and then replacing the Mayan term for water, haa, with the Aztec one, atl.” One other possibility is that chocolate is derived from the Maya verb chokola’j, which means, “to drink chocolate together.”

Like today, chocolate seems to have always been present during life´s happiest and saddest moments. It is said that in Mayan marriages in Guatemala, a woman would have to make the cacao and prove that she could make it with the proper froth. It was also present at funerals, since ruins at Mayan burial sites have cacao residues in them as well, where many cacao pots were buried with people. Wouldn´t you die for a piece of dark chocolate right now? On this National Bittersweet Chocolate Day, indulge in the divinity of this ultimate Mesoamerican food ritual.