Chocolate is chocolate, not because it’s sweet, but because it’s bitter. And for the first 3,500 years of human consumption, chocolate was only bitter.
Theobroma cacao, the tree that produces the beans for chocolate, comes from the Amazonian basin in South America. More than 4,000 years ago, people in the Americas started domesticating the plant. Plantations existed at least as early as 600 CE. However, up until Columbus’ arrival Europe and Asian had no contact with chocolate. Additionally, the people of the Americas did not know of the rest of the world. Advanced Mesoamerican societies were without cow’s milk and sugar.
Consequently, the people of the Americas were limited to the spices that were available to them if they attempted to counteract the bitterness of chocolate. For the most part, they didn’t try (other than the occasional use of honey). The characteristic greasy, dark and bitter taste of chocolate (an acquired taste) became part of chocolates reputation as a healthy elixir, a conclusion that modern science has affirmed. Additionally, chocolate was to the ancient societies of Mexico and Central America a drink with spiritual dimensions. Chocolate was used in numerous rituals and was designated the “food of the gods.” In fact, for the Aztecs, the god Queztzalcoatl stole a cocoa tree from paradise before bringing it to earth on a morning star.
Major Mesoamerican societies (like the Mayans and Aztecs) prized chocolate and chocolate beans were even used as currency at some points. They prized it even though they didn’t have sugar. If you forget milk chocolate and think about the dark chocolate that you have eaten with the highest cocoa content, chocolate is bitter in much the same way as black coffee is. Also like coffee, chocolate was consumed as a drink in Mesoamerica before the arrival of Columbus. It was an expensive drink and was normally the beverage of the powerful (priests, nobles, kings).
Preparation varied even inside these societies. Generally, the Mayans preferred to prepare chocolate hot, while the Aztecs were fond of a cold chocolate beverage. Many different spices and cereals were added to the chocolate, like vanilla, chili pepper, seeds and maize. Almost all added a spicy component but left the bitterness.
It is easy to forget that chocolate is popular not because it is sweet (that is the sugar). It is because the complex bitterness of chocolate complements sugar like no other food. The combination of bitter and sweet makes chocolate one of the most popular foods in the world and easily the most popular dessert. You may never acquire the taste for chocolate without sugar (nor want to), but it is important to realize that chocolate has evolved over 4,000 years