Posted on April 15 2015
Mexican chocolate is a style of drinking chocolate that is very famous in Mexico and extends through Central America all the way to Colombia. The Aztecs and the Maya of these regions were the first peoples to make and drink chocolate for thousands of years before it was discovered by the old world. The origin of the word chocolate comes from xocolatl (bitter water), from the ancient Aztec language, Náhuatl. Another important word in this region is xocola’j which means to drink chocolate together. Drinking chocolate is about 4,000 years old while chocolate bars, or eating chocolate, is only 200 years old!
Back then, the drink only contained cacao, water, and sometimes corn. The popular current version is made with cacao, sugar, and ceylon cinnamon. It can be drunk everyday for breakfast or as a snack - this is common for children in Mexico and all Central America. But it is mostly consumed around religious holidays like Christmas, Three Kings Day, and Day of the Dead. Then and today, cacao-based drinks are a must for any indigenous celebration. The most prized drink being chocolate-atole, a fermented cacao drink that takes 5-6 months to prepare and is valued for its amazing thick froth.
It is regularly drunk in Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. It goes by different names in these countries: chocolate, chocolate de mesa, tableta, tablilla, pastilla, pasta de cacao or barras de chocolate. Soon after the Spanish colonized Mexico, and learned to make drinking chocolate, they colonized the Philippines and transported the cacao drinking culture there. You can find it there under the name tablea or tableya. It is not known or drunk in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, or Paraguay. Since the product has gained popularity in English speaking countries, you can find it under the name Mexican hot chocolate or drinking chocolate. For simplicity, I will refer to the solid mix as Mexican Chocolate (MC), and the actual drink made with the mix as Mexican hot chocolate (MHC).
Mexican chocolate is made with ground cacao, not with chocolate chips or cocoa powder. Ground cacao is simply taking cacao and grinding it a few times in a mill or with stones. I can take ground cacao and sugar and transform that into a smooth chocolate bar, but I cannot take a smooth chocolate bar and retransform that back into Mexican chocolate. Recipes that indicate to begin a Mexican hot chocolate with chocolate chips, chocolate bars, or cocoa powder are wrong. I am not saying it won't be tasty, but I am saying it will not have that special cacao flavor. Chocolate chips/bars have been ground and refined a long time to give it the smooth texture and to lose a lot of flavor. And they have the addition of vanilla, cocoa butter, and soy lecithin. On the other hand, cocoa powder are cacao beans with the cocoa butter removed and will not work for Mexican chocolate. The authentic mix is made with whole ground cocoa beans/cacao that have not been refined for longer than a few minutes. Hence why the texture of a true Mexican chocolate will always be gritty/grainy. If you use molds (like my skulls and cacao pods below) the surface will be smooth, but if I were to cut in the center, it will be grainy like these disks I hand molded.
If you want to experience the most authentic cacao drink, the one that was invented thousands of years ago, you should mix ground cacao with water and serve it lukewarm. You might add ground corn, achiote, or vanilla. What we now consider Mexican chocolate is a more modern recipe that became popular when the Spanish arrived to Mexico, bringing with them milk, sugar, cinnamon, and the desire to consume it hot. It wasn’t until the late 1500’s, 3,500 years after the drink was discovered, that the recipe was altered. The Spanish began to grind cacao with sugar, cinnamon, nuts, anise, or sesame seeds, removing the corn and other native ingredients. Currently, many indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Tabasco, Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, Peru, and Panama only drink it with water and ground corn. There are hundreds of recipes of drinking chocolates in the Americas, to see the top 5 cacao drinks of Mexico visit my post here.
Metate. Before the Spanish arrived to the Americas, people only used metates to prepare meals, including the mix for cacao drinks. The word metate comes from metlatl, a word from the Aztec language, Náhuatl. This rock slab still remains a great tool for making Mexican chocolate. Many women still use this to prepare daily meals. My mother used it daily for 20 years to grind corn to make tortillas. If you are wealthier, you have a metate for every use – one for cacao, one for corn, one for chile, one for rice (horchata), etc. But most women only have one, given to them on their wedding day. I was lucky enough to inherit my mother’s metate, given to her in 1957 and my grandmother’s metate, given to her in 1930.
Finished metates, molcajetes (front round ones), and molino wheels (bottom right) at a market in Oaxaca.
Grinding cacao on a metate. The smaller rock that resembles a rolling pin is called a mano in Spanish or metlapil in Náhuatl. It is specially made for its metate, a mano from another metate would have to be chiseled to fit.
The process of making Mexican chocolate on a metate is simple; after you have roasted, cracked, and separated the nibs from the husks, you place the cacao on the rock and begin to grind it. It helps if you are in a warm area otherwise you can place a candle or hot ashes under the metate to help warm it. Or you can place the metate in a hot oven, 100c/15min, to warm it before you begin to grind. The warmer your metate the easier the cacao will grind. You can also warm the nibs before grinding. It takes 5-10 passes to create the cacao liquor.
Metates need to be cooled before they can be sprayed with water for cleaning. Otherwise the shock of cold might crack it.
Here I am grinding cacao while Reyna grinds the cinnamon. Cinnamon is strong spice and will leave residue on the metate, this is why it's nice to have several.
Molinillo. Molinillos are wooden whisks created for the single purpose of mixing and creating froth in cacao drinks. An ancient tool that is thought to create a foam that when drunk, will bring wisdom and power- the foam carrying oxygen into the body. This tool is sometimes passed down from mother to daughter but it is usual for every woman to get her own new molinillo. In Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru they are made entirely from wood and in Colombia it is a combination of wood and metal. Most molinillos are made entirely from one piece of wood and are considered pieces of art. These are still handmade by small craftsmen throughout Latin America. In Náhuatl it is called a chicolli.
Chocolatero. A chocolatero is a specially created vessel with the sole purpose of mixing or frothing the cacao drink. In Mexico it is usually orange clay or painted green, and in Colombia they have a famous design made from aluminum. The important design component is that the bottom be wide enough to allow you to whisk and that it be tall enough to avoid spilling.
This is a 6 foot chocolatero in Manizales, Colombia on the Casa Luker cacao farm.
Pablo Escobar enjoying hot chocolate in Colombia on set of Narcos.
Molino. Well after the European arrival in the mid-1800’s, a new tool began to appear, the molino, a mill. This tool facilitated grinding cacao (as well as corn, rice, spices, etc.) for the kitchen. Nowadays the molino has replaced the metate in modern homes for making cacao mixes and grinding corn. If you live in Oaxaca, Mexico, there are stores, also called molinos, that have electric molinos and will grind the food/cacao for you for a small fee.
Some molinos will sell cacao as well. In Oaxaca you can see many of these. You have the option to buy unfermented cacao, otherwise known as washed cacao, or fermented cacao. From here you choose peeled cacao (without the husk) or with the husk. Peeled is more expensive. Choose whether you want sugar, almonds, or cinnamon. They will completely customize your chocolate mix for you. A small hand cranked molino will cost about $30 usd and $200 usd with a motor.
Selling molinillos in Oaxaca outside the popular molino, Mayordomo.
The metate, molinillo, chocolatero, and molino remain as the single most important tools for making cacao mixes/pastes and for preparing chocolate drinks.
The popular brands, Abuelita and Ibarra, are owned by large companies and contain more sugar than cacao, added vegetable oil, artificial flavors, cocoa powder, or soy lecithin. And low quality cacao. A good drinking chocolate should only have cacao, sugar, and some natural flavors, like cinnamon, coffee, almond, etc.
The brands that will be all natural will be smaller brands like Casa Luker from Colombia, or Mayordomo and La Soledad from Mexico.
The big companies will mostly use African cacao because it is the cheapest. Only if the label specifies cacao origin, can you know where the cacao is from. The fact that the brand says, “Mexican hot chocolate” does not mean that it is made with Mexican cacao; it means it is a style of drinking chocolate. Even if you purchase the Mexican chocolate in Mexico from Mexicans, you might not know if the cacao is Mexican. Mexico imports a lot of cacao beans from Africa. If it does not indicate a source of cacao, you can assume it is from Africa, which is true for any eating or drinking chocolate.
Clarity on styles of drinking chocolate
Aztec Chocolate: can be ground cacao or chocolate with cinnamon, chile, and other spices. This is a recent style invented by many romantic American and European chocolatiers. Example: Dagoba Xocolatl or Vosges Chocolat Aztec. They use the word Aztec to indicate that it has chile or spices. But it does not resemble anything the Aztecs drunk nor resembles anything currently drunk in the Americas. It is a new style of drinking chocolate and liking chile in your drink is completely personal. As an American-Mexican I do admit to putting chile on everything except my toothpaste ... or my chocolate.
Spanish Chocolate: ground cacao or chocolate usually thickened with rice flour or cornstarch, meant to be thick enough to dip things in, the most popular thing to dip, churros! You can find churrerias, or churro shops, all over Spain that serve churros to be dipped in chocolate. It is almost the consistency of a pudding. Example: Valor Chocolate a la taza.
French Chocolate or Sipping Chocolate: also known as drinking chocolate, made with chocolate chips or bars, vanilla, milk, and or heavy cream. Very thick and rich, literally feels like you are drinking a melted chocolate bar. Luxurious. Example: Angelina Paris.
Hot Chocolate or Hot Cocoa: American or British, cocoa powder instead of cacao or chocolate. Can be made with milk or water, very weak and sweet. Usually comes with marshmallows. Example: Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate.
Origin Drinking Chocolates: The most recent chocolate movement called craft or bean-to-bar, has created a new style of drinking chocolates - origin drinking chocolate. Which means you can by ground chocolate that is made entirely with cacao beans from one origin. You can find drinking chocolates made entirely with beans from Belize, Nicaragua, Ecuador, or any cacao producing country. Example: Dick Taylor, Single Origin Drinking Chocolate Ecuador.
What is the best drinking chocolate?
Unfortunately only you can decide what you like to drink. My favorite style is Mexican hot chocolate - cacao, sugar, ceylon cinnamon mixed with whole milk. My least favorite would be any drink made with only cocoa powder and made with water. If you prefer something very healthy, only drink ground cacao mixed with water. I suggest you try every version and decide for yourself.
Most people in Mexico and the USA make the drink with whole milk or water. But you can use oat milk, rice milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, almond milk, or heavy cream. You have to actually like these alternate milks because the flavor and texture will come through. I prefer whole cow milk - I come from a long lineage of cattle ranchers and we love milk. It is traditional to serve Mexican hot chocolate with a sweet bread or roll. You are supposed to dip the bread into the drink. In Mexico it also pairs well with tamales and in Colombia they add a piece of soft cheese.
You can buy Mexican chocolate online or you can buy cacao beans and make your own. But you will need a molino or similar machine to help grind it.
-Machines that will not work: blenders, food processors.
-Machines that may work: coffee/spice mill, meat grinder.
-Machines that will work: molino, metate, Champion Juicer, Premier Wonder Grinder, any nut grinder.
Mexican Chocolate Recipe from scratch500g cacao beans*
10g of Ceylon cinnamon
- Roast cacao beans in an oven at 300F (149c) for 20 minutes. This is a dark roast.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool 30 minutes.
- Break the cacao beans and separate the nibs from the husks. You can leave some or all of the husk but this adds bitter flavors. In Mexico many mixes are prepared with the husks on the seed. You won’t ruin it to leave the husks. You can remove the husk with your hands and take care to keep the cacao bean whole. If it breaks it is harder to remove the husk. Or you can break them all by putting the whole beans in a tea towel or good quality bag, then rolling a wine bottle or rolling pin over them. Then use a hair dryer to gently blow away the husks.
- Grind the nibs and the cinnamon stick together. This is the tricky part because I don’t know what machine you will use. You need to get the nibs to look like a chunky peanut butter.
- If you are going to use molds: Before adding the sugar, make sure your mix is hot (120f or 50c). If you don't have a thermometer, heat your chocolate in a bowl, use a water bath or microwave, heat until if feels hot to the touch. But it can't be so hot that you can't even touch it. Don't overheat otherwise you will burn it. Remove from heat/microwave and add the sugar and cinnamon if you are using. The sugar will cool it down. Ideally you want to get it to 84f or 27c. Then you can place in the molds and immediately into the refrigerator for 10-20 minutes. Until the chocolate releases from the mold. If you are not using sugar, allow the chocolate to cool a little until you put in the molds.
- Hand mold or cookies cutter: When you add the sugar it will cool down the cacao. This is good and will make it easier to hand mold or place in cookies cutters. It has to look grainy and hard, not like a liquid. Grab a small amount with your hand and roll into balls. Or place into cookie cutters; you must remove the cookie cutter before it sets, you only need the cookie cutter to shape it then you remove it. Once it sets you might not be able to remove the chocolate in that shape.
- To make the drink: heat 1 cup (230ml) of milk, remove from heat, add 30grams of MC and blend in blender until MC dissolves.
- You have the option to use only cacao for this recipe. Make a 100% cacao mix -don’t add the sugar or cinnamon. When you make the drink, you can add the sugar, cinnamon or any other flavor.
- The sugar-to-cacao ratio is up to you, normal recipes in Mexico would be much higher in sugar. 500g of cacao to 700g of sugar. This is ok if that’s your preference.
- You can buy cacao beans online (MeridianCacao.com). Some Latin stores have it next to the spices aisle. Or you can walk into a chocolate store and ask if you can buy some.
You can save this chocolate forever in a plastic or glass container in dark, dry, cool space. Mexican chocolate does not go bad, it will turn white/greyish, but this is completely normal and is only the sugar and cocoa butter coming to the surface. It will not affect flavor. However, you should always keep your MC well covered otherwise it will attract insects or absorb other odors, in which case you should throw it away.
Although cacao melts with friction and pressure, it is very hard. I like to make my MC in single serving sizes or create bars/disks thin enough to break. Commercial MC disks require a hammer, knife, or rock to break into smaller pieces.
You can also buy MC, melt, and remake into awesome shapes. This is easy and great to make with kids. Post and video coming soon!