Friday, May 9, 2014

Maya and Aztec Hot Chocolate

We learned that the Ancient Maya and the Aztecs used cacao to make a bitter drink called cacahuatl or kakaw. They ground up the beans, mixed them with water and chiles (and sometimes maize), and used them to make a drink that was "food of the Gods." That's where we get the Latin name of the cacao bean, Theobroma Cacao. The Maya believed that the god Quetzalcoatl himself brought down the cacao tree from heaven and showed their ancestors how to make chocolate. (If you believe the Maya are in some way the descendants of the Nephites and Lamanites, and Quetzalcoatl is a legend based on the appearance of Jesus Christ, does this mean Jesus is the one who first taught mankind about chocolate? Discuss. :))

Here is a video (in two parts) of the history of chocolate, from an indigenous peoples' perspective.

We liked these illustrations about chocolate's history (especially the one about trading cacao beans for bunnies!)

To see sort of how cacahuatl would have tasted, we made this Crio Bru drink, which is made from roasted and ground cacao beans. The websites says you just prepare it like coffee, but since I've never made coffee that wasn't helpful at all. I have made herbal tea, though, and after some research I realized it's the same idea---letting the flavoring agent steep in hot water until it imparts its flavor to the water. 

You could use a tea infuser to hold the ground beans, but since we were making a larger pot full, I just boiled the ground beans right in the water, and then strained them out to leave only the cacao-flavored liquid behind.

Without the chiles this wasn't completely authentic, but we didn't add sugar or milk or anything, so it did give us some idea of the taste of the ancient drink.
You can see that some of the cacao butter within the beans has separated out from the water and is floating on top, making kind of an oily film. On another day, we talked more about emulsification and why this happens, but this would have been characteristic of hot drinking chocolate even later than Maya and Aztec times---even when the drink was exported to Spain and other parts of Europe and sweetened with sugar. They didn't figure out how to make hot chocolate smooth and velvety like it is today until Joseph Fry invented the process of making solid bar chocolate in the 1840s.

None of us really liked the Crio Bru. You can sweeten it with sugar and milk, but even when we tried that we just thought it was weird. Maybe if I had known what I was doing when preparing it (or had a "French press," whatever that is) it would have been better. Or maybe we just don't have the taste for coffee-like drinks. But anyway, it was interesting to try.

Next, we made a spicy, Maya-style hot chocolate that was a little more to our tastes because it had sugar and milk added as well. But we wanted to prepare it the special ancient way, which means building up a froth by pouring the chocolate over and over from a great height, as seen in these ancient pictures:
Looks fun, doesn't it?
It was! We started out low and got higher and higher as we got more daring (I would recommend putting towels down on the floor though, just in case!) :)
The cocoa did, indeed, get very frothy and foamy. Yum!
We used this recipe here, but used chile powder and cut the amount to less than 1/4 tsp. It was still really spicy for us! But thick, dark, and good. We loved the cinnamon flavor.

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