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Mexican food of the gods

February 24, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Is chocolate an herb?

If utility is the criterion for a herb, then Theobroma cacao has made its herbal case in spades. It has provided the people of the earth with currency, mulch, a drink fit for royalty (and rug-rats); it is used to flavor mole (pronounced "MOH-lay") and mousse and is the favorite flavor of choice for candy.

The lovely, dark, sweet chocolate that we relish today is a far cry from the bitter beverage dear to the palates of the pre-Columbian Aztecs. Their chief, Montezuma, reportedly imbibed 50 cups of it a day and believed it increased his sexual prowess. Centuries later James Wadsworth discretely tackled the same theme in his poem "Theobroma."

"Twill make Old women Young and Fresh,

Create new motions of the Flesh,

And cause them long for you know what,

If they but taste of chocolate."

Some experts suggest that the word chocolate comes from the Aztec word Cocahuatl (xoco = sour, atl = water) or "bitter juice." The drink that Spanish soldier and explorer Hernando Cortez found the Aztecs consuming with such passion was indeed bitter, being simply ground cocoa beans flavored with chili pods, vanilla and occasionally honey.

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Aztec legend tells how the god Quetazacoatl brought the stolen seeds of the cacao tree to earth from the Garden of Life. Along with the gift of the seeds he taught the people how to prepare the fruit that was soon regarded as so valuable that it was used for currency and became the drink of priests and nobles. Angry at the theft of the seeds, the other gods caused Quetazacoatl's return to the nether regions in disgrace. Fortunately his gift remained with the people.

The cacao is a curious tree. The furrowed pods, looking a bit like acorn squash, grow on the trunk and branches of this tall evergreen. Trees grown for production of cacao are usually maintained at 15 to 20 feet and produce 2 crops a year.

When ripe the pods are broken open, the seeds and pulp are removed and allowed to ferment. The seeds are then dried. Seeds from several varieties of Theobroma are blended to produce the best cocoa. The seeds are then roasted and shelled. The shells (or hulls) are used as animal feed or fragrant mulch. The hulled seeds, or nibs, which are more than 50 percent cocoa butter, are then ground.

Conrad Van Houten developed a press that separated most of the fat from the bean to create cocoa butter. That expressed fat was then added to the ground cocoa beans to produce a smooth paste that could more easily accommodate sugar. When the nibs or liquor are treated with an alkaline solution, a darker and more flavorful product is produced, known as Dutch cocoa.

The chocolate we relish eating is enriched with yet more cocoa butter. Bitter-sweet chocolate has sugar added, while both sugar and milk solids are added to milk chocolate.

For almost a century after Cortez and Columbus first tasted cocoa it seemed to be a "secret" drink of the Spanish, but by 1606 it had begun to find favor all over Europe. Chocolate first became popular as a medicine or panacea - though the lead pigments (Venetian red) and brick dust that were added to improve color were hardly healthful ingredients. It wasn't until 1755 that chocolate was imported into the American colonies in quantity to be dispensed by doctors and apothecaries.

Chocolate as medicine is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a chemical found in the brains of happy people and chocolate is loaded with PEA. Chocolate does contain tyramine (also found in cheese and red wine) and can cause headaches. Foods containing tyramine should be avoided by persons taking drugs for depression.

Chocolate with meat is less familiar to us Americans than chocolate in desserts. Moles, nicknamed "tablecloth stainers" in Mexico, combine meat, chocolate and chilies, producing a lovely rich stew.

You can live like an Aztec chieftain right here at home - enjoy a rich cup of cocoa.

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