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Chiles and Chocolate
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by Dave DeWitt

Chiles and Chocolate


The Great Montezuma Hot Chocolate

Double Trouble Chocolate Truffles

Tangy Truffles!

White Chocolate Ancho Chile Ice Cream

Warm Chocolate Pecan Pie

Chocolate Red Chile Zucchini Cake

The culinary mating of hot chiles and chocolate was unforgettably revealed to me in the mercado in Oaxaca, where the molinos--grinding mills--in adjacent stalls were processing cacao beans in one stall and mole paste with chiles in the other. In this ancient city, I had this sudden epiphany that, in prehistoric times, ancient cooks would have naturally experimented with combining two of their favorite crops.

Molinillo, a tool to froth chocolate

A molinillo, or "little mill," a tool to froth chocolate

The Ancient Chocolate-Chile Civilizations

Later research would reveal how truly old this tradition is. The earliest archaeological evidence that I could dig up dated to A.D. 595, when chiles associated with cacao seeds were found in the Cerén archaeological site in El Salvador. Imagine the surprise of the researchers when they discovered painted ceramic storage vessels that contained large quantities of chile seeds with cacao. "One vessel had cacao seeds in the bottom, and chocolate above, separated by a layer of cotton gauze," said the lead anthropologist, Dr. Payson Sheets. "It is possible that they would have been prepared into a kind of mole sauce." (Read the complete Article on Cerén.)

Cacao botanical print

Cacao bean pod. Inside the
pod  is a layer of sweet pulp
that has 20 to 60 seeds or
cocoa beans embedded in it.
Photo by Harald Zoschke

Cacao botanical print,
showing pods and seeds.

Cacao bean pod

We have even more documentation of the Aztecs’ love of chiles and chocolate. In 1529, a Spanish Franciscan friar living in Nueva España (now Mexico) noted that the Aztecs added hot red or yellow chile peppers to their hot chocolate and used them in nearly every dish they prepared. Fascinated by the Aztec's constant use of a previously unknown spice, Bernardino de Sahagn documented this fiery cuisine in his classic study, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, now known as the Florentine Codex. His work proves that of all the pre-Columbian New World civilizations, it was the Aztecs who loved chile peppers the most. The market places of ancient Mxico overflowed with chile peppers of all sizes and shapes, and Sahagún wrote they included "hot green chiles, smoked chiles, water chiles, tree chiles, beetle chiles, and sharp-pointed red chiles."

Representation of a cacao plant in an Aztec codex

Representation of a cacao plant in an Aztec codex

The chiles and cacao pods were also paid as tributes or taxes to the Emperor Montezuma, who was quite fond of the combination of chiles and chocolate. Richard Sterling, writing in Fiery-Foods & BBQ magazine, noted that Bernal Díaz, the chronicler of the conqueror Hernan Cortes, made careful observations about the chocolate in his book, The Conquest of New Spain. "The great Montezuma liked his cup of hot cocoa flavored with vanilla, honey, and spiked with a good dose of red chile," Sterling wrote. "The Conquistadors picked up the habit, too, and brought it to Europe and, of course, the rest is culinary and confectionery history. But Diaz and some others stayed in Mexico carving out huge haciendas and quaffing cocoa in the manner of their admired late foe. They kept the original recipe but expanded on it a bit by adding a splash of "vino de Tequila." After cattle were introduced to Mexico from Europe they added a little milk or cream. But basically they drank what they emperor had drunk. Only when it had gone through many European hands did the mixture become the confection we know today."

18th century chocolate party in Valencia, Spain

Detail of an early 18th century tile panel showing a chocolatada (chocolate party) in Valencia, Spain

Díaz observed: "Sometimes they brought him in cups of pure gold a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives. We did not take much notice of this at the time, though I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of this chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little. They always served it with great reverence."

Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of The True History of Chocolate, observe: "Universally popular throughout Mesoamerica was the addition to the drink of chilli, dried and ground to a powder. The Molina vocabulary [the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary] calls the drink chilcacahuatl; of course, given the extraordinary array of chillis grown in Mexico, it could be anywhere from mildly pungent to extremely hot."

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, the story of how chocolate was added to chile sauces does not involve warriors, but rather nuns. Legend holds that mole poblano was invented in the sixteenth century by the nuns of the convent of Santa Rosa in the city of Puebla. It seems that the archbishop was coming to visit, and the nuns were worried because they had no food elegant enough to serve someone of his eminence. So, they prayed for guidance and one of the nuns had a vision. She directed that everyone in the convent should begin chopping and grinding everything edible they could find in the kitchen. Into a pot went chiles, tomatoes, nuts, sugar, tortillas, bananas, raisins, garlic, avocados, and dozens of herbs and spices. The final ingredient was the magic one: chocolate. Then the nuns slaughtered their only turkey and served it with the mole sauce to the archbishop, who declared it the finest dish he had ever tasted.

It’s a nice story, but more likely mole was invented by the Aztecs long before the Spaniards arrived. Since chocolate was reserved for Aztec royalty, the military nobility, and religious officials, perhaps Aztec serving girls at the convent gave a royal recipe to the nuns so they could honor their royalty, the archbishop. At any rate, the recipe for mole poblano was rescued from oblivion and became a holiday favorite.

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