Thursday, March 15, 2012


Mocachino at Cafe Nuevo Mundo
It would be difficult to think of Oaxaca without thinking of Chocolate.  Chocolate has been used as a drink for nearly all of its history.  Chocolate is produced from the seed of the tropical cacao tree. Cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Mexico, Central and South America. Genetic studies suggest that the plant originated in the Amazon basin and was gradually transported by humans throughout South and Central America. The scientific name, Theobroma, means "food of the gods". The majority of the Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a Nahuatl word meaning "bitter water". Its earliest documented use is around 1100 to 1400 BC in Puerto Escondido, Honduras. The Maya civilization grew cacao trees and used the cacao seeds to make a frothy, bitter drink. Maya hieroglyphs indicate that chocolate was used for ceremonial purposes. By the 15th century, the Aztecs gained control of a large part of Mesoamerica, and adopted cacao into their culture. They associated chocolate with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility, and often used chocolate beverages as sacred offerings. The Aztec adaptation of the drink was a bitter, frothy, spicy drink called xocolatl, made much the same way as the Mayan chocolate drinks. It was often seasoned with vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote, and was believed to fight fatigue, which is probably attributable to the theobromine content, a mood enhancer. Because cacao would not grow in the dry central Mexican highlands and had to be imported, chocolate was an important luxury good throughout the Aztec empire, and cocoa beans were often used as currency.

Mayordomo and La Soledad are the two largest chocolate sellers in Oaxaca but there are many others

Grinding chocolate in a molino
The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste, and must be fermented to develop the flavor.  After fermentation, the beans are dried, then cleaned, and then roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground to cocoa mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Oaxaca does not grow the cocoa beans but imports roughly eighty percent from the state of Tabasco and the rest from Chiapas. It is often ground with sugar, cinnamon or vanilla, and almonds, and formed into bars used to prepare hot chocolate, tejate, atole, and as an ingredient in some moles.  You can also get your chocolate fix via nieve or pasteles such as muffins or pan au chocolate.

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Hot chocolate is made either with hot milk or hot water traditionally whipped with a wooden whisk called a molinillo held between the palms using a back and forth motion until the chocolate is aerated and frothy.

Tejate vendor in Etla
Tejate is a maize and cacao beverage, originating from pre-Hispanic times it is the original energy drink.  Toasted maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits and flor de cacao (also known as rosita de cacao) are finely ground into a paste. The paste is mixed with water by hand. When it is ready, the flor de cacao rises to the top to form a pasty foam. It is served cold, as-is or with some sugar syrup to sweeten it.

Tejate and Atole vendor in the Pechote market

Atole is a traditional masa-based Mexican hot drink. The drink typically includes masa, water, piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar), cinnamon, vanilla and optional chocolate or fruit. The mixture is blended and heated before serving. Atole is one of the traditional drinks of the Day of the Dead, but is common throughout the year.

Oaxaca is also famous for its mole a rich, piquant sauce that sometimes includes chocolate. Mole can be purchased as a pasta mix to which you add chicken broth and tomato, or you may assemble your own using the same ingredients that Oaxacanos have used for centuries.

Cocoa solids contain alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine, which have a physiological effect that has been linked to serotonin levels in the brain. Dark chocolate appears to help prevent heart disease. When LDL cholesterol oxidizes, it tends to stick to artery walls, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Research has shown the polyphenols in chocolate inhibit oxidation of LDL cholesterol.  The presence of theobromine renders chocolate toxic to some animals, especially dogs and cats.  

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