Food of the gods

Food of the gods
Warning: Reading this article may cause cravings that insist on being satisfied. To prevent mental anguish, it is a good idea to open a bar of chocolate as you start to read.

My love for chocolate first started with Cadbury’s Eclairs. My sisters and I ‘worked hard’, doing small errands for my grandmother, and earned enough to buy three of this chocolate, which cost 35 paisa each at the time. The best way to eat it was to suck on it a couple of times and then bite into it. The slow ooze of the delicious chocolate centre … ah, it was divine!

Yes, there is one food that is loved by nearly everybody on this planet and that is chocolate. They say that nine out of every 10 people in this world love chocolate… and the 10th person always lies. Okay, there may be people who don’t like the brown concoctions, but even they like white chocolate.

And what is not to love? The rich-brown mysterious colour, the wonderful aroma, the firm break-off, and the melting in the mouth make the chocolate-eating experience a joy in itself. And that’s only one aspect!

There are so many intriguing myths and misconceptions about chocolate that it is hard to know where to begin.

We know that Swiss and Belgian chocolates are the best in the world. However, chocolate originated not in Europe as we think, but deep in the steamy tropical jungles of Central and South America. It was the ancient Central American civilisations that discovered the goodness of chocolate. The Olmecs of Mexico prepared chocolate beverages for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink. In fact, the ‘chemical footprint’ of this beverage has been detected in a vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site in Mexico, which has been dated back to 1900 BC. These people were also the first to domesticate the cacao plant. Even the word ‘chocolate’ is attributed to the Aztec word ‘xocoatl’ meaning a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans.

Just imagine, a tree with bars and bars of chocolate hanging from its branches! Sorry, that isn’t exactly how chocolate is born. The cacao plant, Theobroma cacao, produces large yellow or red-coloured fruit called pods directly on the stem and branches. Each pod has a sweet, viscous pulp, in which are embedded about 30 to 40 seeds, which are the cacao beans. The pulp was probably the first to be eaten. The cacao beans are fermented and roasted and then processed to make chocolate.

Another myth is that the chocolate was always consumed as a solid. The truth is that the first use of cacao is as a drink. The Mayans believed that gods shed their blood on the cacao pods as part of its production. They fermented the beans, roasted them, ground them into a paste and then mixed them into a drink with water, chili peppers and cornmeal. This drink was then transferred repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam.

Not so popular then

Such a unique product must have clearly been recognised as valuable by the invading Europeans, right? The answer is: absolutely not. Christopher Columbus first encountered the cacao bean on his fourth trip to the Americas, when he and his men seized a large native canoe that contained various goods for trade. Among them were the beans, which the natives seemed to value greatly. Calling them ‘almonds’, his son Ferdinand commented that whenever one fell on the ground, they all stooped to pick it up, ‘as if an eye had fallen’. Though Columbus and Co. did not know it, cacao was deemed extremely precious in those days. It was touted to be good for the stomach and general health, and used as everything from an energy drink to an aphrodisiac.

Aztecs were unable to grow cacao themselves, but imported it. When they conquered parts of Mesoamerica (from Central Mexico, down to northern Costa Rica) that grew it, they forced those provinces to pay them as tax or tribute. Thus the cacao bean became a form of currency. Children these days barter a bar of chocolate for favours like homework, but back in the day, according to the Spanish conquistadors, 100 beans could buy a canoe filled with fresh water, or a turkey hen. In fact, cacao beans were commonly used as currency even up to the 1840s in the Yucatan peninsula, where they were used in place of small coins.

Unlike the Mayans of Yucatan, the Aztecs drank their chocolate cold. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes observed emperor Montezuma being served this drink from time to time from a goblet of pure gold, which gave a clue of how highly regarded that drink was. Columbus faithfully took the cacao beans to Spain with him, but they did not become an instant hit. Remember, the Mayan concoction had chilis in them and was spicy and bitter. But then, the Spanish sweetened the bitter drink with cane sugar and vanilla, and voila, it became a must-have.

Chocolate remained a Spanish secret for nearly a century. But when the daughter of Spanish King Philip III married French King Louis XIII, she brought her love of chocolate to France. This drink quickly spread to other European courts, and soon became the favourite of aristocrats. To feed this habit, cacao began to be grown in plantations in equatorial regions.

The labour force in these plantations consisted of the local workers, who unfortunately succumbed to diseases brought by their employers. This was when Europeans started bringing in African slave labour to work their plantations.

On a side note: the sad truth is that slave labour, that too child slave labour, is still a big factor in cacao plantations today.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, chocolate was a favourite drink of the aristocrats, but ordinary people couldn’t afford it. This changed when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press in 1828. This cocoa press could squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake. This cake could be pulverised into a fine powder that could be mixed with liquids and other ingredients, poured into moulds, and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate. The process dropped production costs and made it affordable to all.

For the hearts

After the ‘Dutching’ process was invented, inventions came fast and furious. In 1847, British chocolate company J S Fry and Sons created the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar. In 1861, Richard Cadbury created the first known heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day. In 1868, John Cadbury mass-marketed the first box of chocolates. In 1876, Daniel Peter of Switzerland experimented for eight years before finally inventing a means of making milk chocolate. In 1879, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle joined together to form the Nestle Company. In the same year, Rodolphe Lindt of Switzerland invented the ‘conching’ machine which produced a smoother and creamier chocolate that melted on the tongue.

There is a very interesting story about the invention of another chocolate favourite, the chocolate-chip cookie. One day in 1930, Ruth Wakefield realised she was out of baker's chocolate when she wanted to bake chocolate cookies. All she had was a Nestlé chocolate bar. She mixed broken piece of Nestlé chocolate into her cookie dough expecting that the chocolate would be absorbed, producing the standard chocolate cookies. Instead, the pieces held their shape but melted into a gooey goodness, which her guests loved. When the recipe came out, there was a spike in the demand for Nestlé chocolate. Therefore, a deal was struck: Andrew Nestlé gave her a lifetime supply of chocolate in return for the right to publish her recipe on the wrappers of Nestlé chocolate bars.

Another interesting snippet is that Lay’s once sold potato chips dipped in milk chocolate in America. We can safely infer that this was not a great hit, because the chip company hasn’t continued the product.

History is not the only fascinating aspect of chocolate – the making is equally interesting. There are three main cultivar groups of cacao beans which are used to make cocoa and chocolate – the Criollo, Forastero and the Trinitario, a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero. Criollo are the most expensive, rare and prized beans, which are less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. These were the ones used by the Mayans. Forestaro, on the other hand, are hardier trees which give cheaper cacao beans, and give about 80% of the beans. About 10% of the beans are from the Trinitario cultivar. As far as the cultivation of cacao goes, you would expect that Latin American countries would lead production, right? Wrong! About 40% of the world’s cacao comes from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia, with Brazil, Nigeria and Cameroon being smaller producers. The dark side of cacao production, other than slave labour, is the fact that every day, thousands of acres of rainforest are being cleared to make way for cacao plantations. So in a way, our insatiable love for chocolate is leading to deforestation.

Okay, now back to the fun stuff, like how chocolate is made. To make chocolate, cacao beans are first cleaned and then sorted and roasted at temperatures of between 210 and 290 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes to two-and-a-half hours, depending on the type of beans. Then the beans are cracked and the shells removed. The product is the nibs, which are ground and crushed until they form a thick, bitter chocolate paste. Here, cocoa butter, vanilla and sugar are added, removing the bitterness and adding sweetness. Milk is added in the case of milk chocolates. This increases the creaminess. Once the chocolate is mixed, it is conched, meaning air is whipped into the chocolate to give it more creaminess. Then the conched chocolate is tempered, that is, heated up and cooled down several times before it is tuned into chocolate bars. Tempering gives chocolate its glossy finish and allows it to melt properly.

There are many, many confections that can be made with chocolate. Over and above, anything that is good can be made better by dipping in chocolate. There is a whole world of delicious possibilities. You can use it to coat fruits like mandarin orange, banana and strawberries. It tastes deadly delicious with nuts or peanut butter. However, if you want to indulge in the bizarre, you can try chocolate-covered onions, dill pickles, squid, seaweed, scorpions and crickets. Not saying you’ll like it, but it has been tried...

Finally, here’s an intriguing question: why do we love to eat chocolate? Of course, we love the smooth and seductive tasty mouth feel given by cocoa butter that just melts in your mouth. But, the true reason why we love to eat chocolate is its chemical contents. First of all, the main factors of carbohydrates, sugars and fats give us a boost of energy. Chocolate contains the chemicals theobromine and caffeine, both of which are stimulants and make you feel things more sharply. However, there are only five to 10 milligrams of caffeine in chocolate, compared to a cup of regular coffee that has between 100 to 150 mg of caffeine. So there is really no truth to the term ‘chocoholic’!

There are about 300naturally-occurring chemicals in chocolate, including neurotransmitters, some of which can tell our brains to feel happy. One of these, phenylethylamine, causes alertness and excitement, quickens the pulse rate and makes us happy. Another neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is a mood-lifter, is released in the brain by a chemical called tryptophan, which is found in chocolate. Anandamide (from the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’) is one of the fats in chocolate that activates a receptor that causes dopamine production, and dopamine causes a feeling of intense well-being. These are the same receptors that respond to the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana and hashish. However, it’s impossible to get a high from eating chocolate, so rest easy. You’ll have to ingest more than 25 pounds to get there. Chocolate also contains endorphins, which are released into the brain while it is being eaten, and these decrease stress and pain.

So what are you waiting for? Go and get yourself some chocolate. And work hard to save the earth. It’s the only planet with chocolate.

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