The first evidence we have for chocolate was its use as a drink by the Olmecs around 1900 BCE. But it was the Aztecs who saw it as sacred. They believed the cacao bean was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, one that promised to endow its drinker with divine wisdom. The liquid was reserved for the nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors, all of whom had specially decorated cups out of which it was sipped cold, preferably with a head of foam. This was originally achieved by pouring the liquid back and forth from one pitcher into another. Chocolate was so sacred that men who were to be sacrificed were given a chocolate drink before death to sanctify them for the gods.
The cacao pods hold between 25-40 seeds. The pods are gathered, split open, and the wet seeds are removed to ferment. This is the process that gives chocolate the rich flavor. It takes about three days for the beans to dry out. Then the thin husks on the seeds are removed and the beans ground on a stone metate until they make a powder or, with the addition of a little water, a thick paste. This could then be used immediately or shaped into tablets for use later.
The cacao bean was used as currency as well. Aztec rulers demanded it as tribute from certain conquered tribes. Records show that one cacao bean could buy you a tomato in the market of Tenochtitlan, 30 beans could get you a rabbit, and the price of a turkey was 200 beans. The beans themselves were so valuable that they were counterfeited, a crime dealt with swiftly. Some enterprising criminals even hollowed them out, removing the valuable insides and filling the shell with sand.
Hernan Cortéz found the chocolate drink Moctezuma gave him too bitter and spicy, because the Aztecs added chilies. After the Conquest, the Spaniards tried adding sugar cane and honey to the drink and liked it better, especially when they began to drink it hot. In fact, Cortéz liked it so much, he decided to establish a cocoa plantation. Reportedly, he liked the idea of “growing money.” And apparently it was indeed profitable.
It still is. Check out the chocolate fountain in the Bellagio in Las Vegas. It is the largest one in the world.
If you want to try chocolate Aztec-style, here is the recipe:
5 ½ cups water
1 green chili pepper, sliced
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Bring 1 ½ cups water to boil. Add chili pepper (with seeds) and boil 5-10 minutes. Strain and add 4 cups water. Reduce heat and bring to slow boil. Stir in cocoa and vanilla until powder dissolves, 5-10 minutes. Chill. Once cold, beat until heavy froth appears. Drink and enjoy!