I was helping my daughter with a homework assignment on ancient cultures in Mexico, specifically the Mesoamerican culture of the Olmeca. I love my research projects and learning about other cultures. The Olmecs were considered the “mother” of all future Mesoamerican cultures. They were the first to discover and turn the cacao plant into chocolate. So, we definitely have a lot to thank them for. They are also believed to be the first to invent ball games and one of the first civilizations to build cities and pyramids, but I digress …
The Olmecs lived from approximately 1500 – 400 BC. in the area on the gulf coast of Mexico, which is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
They were the first known society to domesticate the cacao tree. They harvested it and turned it into a beverage which was used during religious rituals and also as medicine. Since the Olmecs had no written language, this was discovered because theobromine, the stimulant compound in cacao, was found in pottery at ancient burial sites, showing cacao was used in spiritual ceremonies, most likely as a drink.
The Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods. According to Mayan Creation Text, the gods created humans from maize and cacao. The cacao tree was their “tree of life” and was believed to link the human world to the spiritual world. The Mayan roasted ground cacao seeds mixed with chilies and cornmeal and brewed it with water. They ritually poured this mixture from one pot to another, creating a thick foamy beverage called “xocolatl”, which meant “bitter water.” Cacao beverages were left in tombs and cacao beans were used to decorate bodies of the dead because it was believed that cacao could energize the soul and help with the transition to the spiritual world.
The Aztecs believed that chocolate was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl. They used it as currency, drank it as a refreshing cold beverage, an aphrodisiac, and even gave it to warriors for energy when preparing for war.
After fermentation, cacao beans were mixed with water, vanilla, cinnamon, and often a red chili. The beverage was then foamed before drinking. The foam was thought to contain the essence of the god of wind. The cacao beverage was also prescribed as a remedy for many illnesses. It was used to cure skin conditions, lower fever, treat seizures and even to coax illness out of the body as an offering the spiritual world.
Chocolate didn’t become an everyday food until late Mayan and Aztec times. This is when cacao was served at weddings, births, and other feasts and parties. Eventually chocolate beverages became a staple in the Mesoamerican diet. Chocolate continues to be one of the world’s favorite treats. We can now enjoy it as a candy, ice cream, in cookies, cakes, and of course we still drink it cold as chocolate milk, or as a warming hot chocolate. I know I consider chocolate a daily staple and thank Quetzalcoatl for this muy delicioso treat.
Here is a modern recipe for the Aztec XOCOLATL by food blogger Kate Hackworthy:
Milk: 1 ½ cups (350ml) Whole milk tastes best in this recipe but use whatever milk you enjoy.
Chocolate Chips: ½ cup dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips or 100g dark chocolate, chopped.
Water: ½ cup (120ml)
Honey or Sugar: 2 teaspoons or more to taste
Cinnamon: 1 teaspoon
Vanilla: 1 teaspoon
1 red chili
Warm the milk and chocolate chips in a pan over a low/medium heat until the chocolate melts, whisking often.
Whisk in the water, honey, cinnamon, and vanilla.
Cut the chili in half, remove and discard the seeds, then add the chili to the pot. Allow the mixture to nearly come to the boil, then remove from the heat.
Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes to infuse the flavors. Taste during this time and remove the chili if it’s getting too spicy and add more sweetener if desired.
Serve warm or cold.