Cacao is the dried seed of the cacao tree that’s used to make cocoa powder and chocolate. The cacao tree is a tropical flowering tree native to the Americas. Its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.” The first instances of cacao processing and culinary use can be traced back to the ancient cultures that once inhabited what is now central and southern Mexico.
The cacao tree can grow to a height of 20 feet and the cacao seeds, or beans, are contained within the tree’s seed pods. Each cacao pod contains 30 to 50 seeds. Mature cacao trees are harvested several times each season, typically between the months of October and April. In Mexico, the cacao tree is cultivated as far north as Veracruz on the central Gulf Coast and Colima on the central Pacific Coast. Mexico has been producing cacao for more than 3,500 years. Yet despite its long history of cacao production, Mexico currently only produces less than one percent of the world’s cacao and today, the majority of the world’s cacao production takes place on the continents of Africa and Asia.
The Olmecs are believed to have been the first of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures to cultivate and use the cacao tree. The Olmecs were the first major civilization to inhabit Mexico and their civilization flourished between 1500 B.C. and 400 B.C. The Olmecs lived in the tropical lowland areas of central and southern Mexico in what are now the states of Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas.
In addition to the cultivation and use of the cacao tree, the Olmecs are credited with inventing the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the concept of zero, the Mesoamerican ballgame and the first writing system in the Western Hemisphere. The ancient Olmec civilization is best known for their large carved stone sculptures of heads and today, you’ll find these Olmec heads and other Olmec artifacts on display in the Museo de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology) in Xalapa, Veracruz and the outdoor Parque-Museo La Venta (La Venta Park and Museum) in Villahermosa, Tabasco.
The Olmecs were succeeded by the Maya who occupied many of the same areas of central and southeastern Mexico and adapted many of the same customs and rituals as their predecessors. The Maya civilization flourished during the Classic Period and is believed by many to be one of the most brilliant ancient civilizations to inhabit the Americas. The Maya developed a complex writing system and religion, which included the worship of numerous gods. They developed an excellent understanding of astronomy which they incorporated into the architecture of their pyramids and temples.
Visitors to southeastern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula can travel along the famous Ruta Maya (Maya Route) which connects small indigenous villages with the remains of ancient Mayan pyramids and temples, many of which have been painstakingly excavated and restored to their original appearance and form. Chichen Itza is one of the best known and well restored of the Yucatan Maya archaeological sites and its main pyramid, El Castillo, is a massive stone representation of the Mayan calendar.
The tradition of cultivation and culinary use of cacao was passed down from the Olmecs to the Maya who cultivated cacao on plantations throughout southeastern Mexico in what are now the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. The Maya elevated the importance of cacao to new heights using it as a beverage for the elite class, a ritual offering and a form of currency. Archaeologists have discovered fired clay pots in the tombs of the Mayan elite that they believe were originally used to hold cacao.
The cacao tree only grows in warm, tropical climates and the presence of cacao in the cool, dry central highland region of Mexico came about as a result of trade between the Maya in the coastal lowland region and the Aztecs in the central highlands. The Maya developed trade routes to move cacao further inland to parts of Mexico and Central America and in doing so, passed along their use of cacao as a beverage, ritual offering and currency to the Aztecs of central Mexico.
The Aztecs were a nomadic group that settled on the islands of Lake Texcoco in the Valle de Mexico (Mexico Valley) in the central highlands of Mexico. By the 15th century, the Aztecs had become the most powerful civilization in the region and ruled over most of central Mexico. The Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlan, over what is today the historic center of Mexico City. The Aztecs used cacao as a currency and it was traded throughout the region. The ancient Aztec city at Teotihuacan, just north of modern day Mexico City, is believed to have been the center of cacao trade in the region.
The ancient Aztec city at Teotihuacan is the site of the Piramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Piramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Teotihuacáa originally covered an area of more than 8-square-miles. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world and one of the top attractions for visitors to Mexico City and central Mexico. It’s an architectural marvel, built without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. Teotihuacán is an important pilgrimage destination attracting large crowds each year during the spring and fall equinoxes.
The Aztecs prepared cacao in the same way as the Olmecs and the Maya before them; by grinding the cacao beans and adding water to create a bitter chocolate flavored beverage. The Aztecs flavored the beverage with a variety of local ingredients and spices including sesame seeds, anise seeds, vanilla, allspice, honey, ground corn and chili peppers. The flavored cacao beverage, which they called “xocoatl” in their native Nahuatl language, was served with a heavy layer of foam and consumed by the elite. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, is said to have consumed cacao on a daily basis. The Aztecs also used cacao for medicinal and ritualistic purposes, including as an offering during human sacrifice.
Cacao was first introduced into Europe after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in 1519. It quickly became a favorite drink among the Spanish conquistadors, especially after they began adding sugar to the beverage to make it less bitter. Cacao was even considered to be one of the treasures of the New World. The Spanish renamed it chocolate and sent it back to Spain in the early-16th century, where it then spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
Spanish nuns in Puebla are credited with adding sugar, cinnamon, eggs, almonds and vanilla to create the recipe that has come to be known as “Mexican chocolate.” The Spanish are also credited with milling cacao into solid tablets and introducing the idea of using chocolate as an ingredient in cooking. Today, chocolate continues to play an important role in Mexican cuisine and it’s a key ingredient in one of the country’s signature dishes, mole poblano, which is named after the state of Puebla.
Mole is a type of sauce that’s traditionally prepared with chili peppers, chocolate and spices and served over chicken or turkey. The name mole comes from the Nahuatl word “mulli,” meaning sauce. Since its invention during the Spanish-colonial period, mole has come to be known as one of Mexico’s most representative dishes and is often consumed at celebrations and festivals. More than half of the mole consumed in Mexico is produced in the rural village of San Pedro Atocpan on the outskirts of Mexico City. Each year in October, San Pedro Atocpan hosts its annual Feria Nacional del Mole (National Festival of Mole). An annual mole festival is also held in the state of Puebla.
The states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala all lay claims to the origin of mole sauce and you’ll encounter several different varieties of mole depending on where in the region you go. The state of Oaxaca is often referred to as the “Land of the Seven Moles,” after the seven unique variations of the sauce that are traditionally prepared there. The state of Puebla is most often associated with mole poblano, one of the most well known variations of mole sauce and one of Mexico’s most traditional dishes. Mole poblano is prepared using more than twenty ingredients including chocolate and chili peppers.
Cacao is also a main ingredient in the traditional Mexican beverage known as tejate. Tejate is prepared using ground corn and cacao beans and served cold. The origin of tejate can be traced back to pre-Hispanic times and today, tejate is most often prepared and consumed within the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec communities in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
Cacao beans are traditionally used in the preparation of chocolate de metate (stone-ground chocolate). The process of making stone-ground chocolate begins with toasting raw cacao beans and grinding them by hand using a metate (grinding stone). The ground beans are then heated and formed into a paste that is traditionally used to make tablets for Mexican hot chocolate. Cacao is also an ingredient in champurrado, a chocolate version of the popular Mexican beverage atole. Atole is a hot corn-based beverage that’s frequently served alongside tamales during holidays and special occasions.
Today, chocolate is available in countless forms all over the world, but there’s nothing like traveling to Mexico to try the original stone-ground recipe that continues to be prepared by hand in small towns and villages across the country. In recent years, the majority of cacao production has moved overseas, but the history of cacao and its importance in the traditions, culture and cuisine of Mexico is alive and well, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.