This week, I visited a chocolateria, Chocolate Mayordomo, in central Oaxaca.
Chocolaterias are fairly common here, and for a good reason: Oaxaca, and much of Southern Mexico, have a deep connection to the history and meaning of chocolate. Oaxaca is the state where chocolate is consumed the most and cacao is still cultivated in the southeastern regions of Mexico.
Like much of the interesting history of Oaxaca, the significance of the tasty treat roots itself in Mesoamerican times. Strong evidence of chocolate and Cocoa production are seen in pre-hispanic tales, with cocoa beans even being used a form of currency in parts of the regions.
It begins with the folklore of a god called Quetzalcoatl, a serpent god with feathers that was often seen in human form. He came down and gifted the cacao plant to the people, teaching them the ways of planting it, harvesting the fruit, prepping the beans, and general care.’
It was also said that the other gods were so upset about the humans having chocolate, an item reserved for the Gods, that they waged a war on Quetzalcoatl in their jealous outrage.
While the Olmecas are thought of as the first in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica to cultivate the plant, with the Mayans inheriting their practices later in the Chontal region. This is where our word for chocolate comes from- the original indigenous word, chocolatl.
I have to admit that I’ve fallen in love with the culinary history of Oaxaca; there’s a particular fascination in knowing that so much of what we consume today, such as corn or chocolate, holds its history simply through preparation and usage. Each time I make corn tortillas by hand or try the raw cacao paste, I am tasting and living history.
The way we consume such items haven’t changed much. For example, the jicara, a small bowl, was used in pre-hispanic times to drink the cacao pulp. Today, I drank Tejate from a jicara. When we climbed mount Picacho, we offered cacao beans to the mountain spirit, much like one would in Mesoamerica.
Even the process of preparing Cacao hasn’t changed much from pre-hispanic times. The beans are typically toasted on a fire on Comal (a clay hot plate) and then ground with cinnamon and almonds on a matate (a flat base grinder made of lava rock). Once it reaches a pasty consistency, sugar and other flavors can be added.
Of course, while the preparation of cacao hasn’t changed much, some things have: For example, in pre-hispanic times, only priests and royalty were allowed to indulge in chocolatl.
Luckily, I’m not a Mesoamerican woman and take great pleasure in chocolate.
Walking through the open doors of a chocolateria, I can smell the rich and dark warmth of toasting cocoa beans. Approaching the service counter, the employees will offer small spoonful samples of raw, ground, chocolate.
Once seated at one of the small tables, I requested the 100% Cocoa chocolate, made without sugar, so as to administer the best and purest flavor. I watched in fascination when the server brings out the olive green Jarro, a clay jug filled with steaming liquid chocolate, and patiently observed as he grinds and stirs the contents with a Molino, a wooden beater. Pouring it into a mug, he raising the Jarro a full foot above the cup, letting the chocolate pull into a frothy pool that collects at the top.
Just like the history of the beans which make the beverage, the flavor proves rich and distinctive.