Did you know that chocolate was basically invented by the ancient Maya of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula? More than 2,500 years ago,the Maya began cultivating cacao and the rest is,well,literally – history! Today,chocolate offers yet another layer to explore while visiting this famed region,which is home to Cancun,the Riviera Maya and the colonial town of Merída.
“The term ‘cacao’ [actually] comes from the Olmecs who pre-dated the Maya,according to the Choco-Story Museum at Uxmal,” shared travel writer Jody Jaffe for the LA Times. “But it was the Maya who came up with chocolate – both the name and the drink.”
To develop the original name,the Maya simply combined two words – chokoh,which means hot and ha,which means water – to describe a popular Mayan drink that mixed ground-up cacao with a variety of different dried chile peppers,vanilla and other spices. To the ancient Mayans,cacao was a critical component of their diet and they believed the beans were a gift from the gods. This made the drink popular during religious ceremonies and even caused it to emerge as a valuable form of currency. But it was xocolatl,an Aztec version of the Mayan drink,that was first sampled by the Europeans,although it reportedly did not go over too well,with one of the conquistadores traveling with Cortés describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs.”
It was only after Cortés brought the cacao beans – and Mayan mixture – back to Spain that cane sugar was added and the delicious,sweet substance we know today as chocolate was born. The mixture quickly became a staple in the Spanish court before sweeping through Europe,with Cortés eventually deeming it “a divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”
“Once the secret of chocolate got out,other places started cultivating it,” writes Jaffe. “Today,more than 80 percent of cacao is grown in Africa and Indonesia. Less than two percent is grown in Mexico.”
Still,the trail of cacao’s history in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is very clear and easy to follow,with a movement developing in recent years for the region to claim its rightful title as the birthplace of chocolate. Jaffe and her husband spent two weeks last winter exploring this trail,planning the entire trip around the Chocolate Indulgence experience,which involves eight hours of chocolate lore,cooking and eating with famed chef David Sterling,a veritable walking history lesson about the Yucatán Peninsula and ancient Maya.
Sterling also recently published “Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition,” an award-winning 560-page cookbook that can easily double as a coffee table book,featuring a gorgeous collection of Yucatán culinary history,photos and recipes. Perhaps most notably,the author stresses that it is not about Mexican food,but strictly Yucatecan cuisine,which includes ancient Mayan influences,spotlights on local cooks and restaurant owners,as well as the colorful varieties of fruits,produce,beans,spices and grains grown throughout the region and sold in the countless markets.
To get up close and personal with Sterling and his knowledge of local chocolate,Jaffe attended the chef’s popular Los Dos Cooking School,which also happens to be TripAdvisor’s top-ranked sightseeing tour in the Yucatán capital,Merída,about three hours west of Cancun. In addition,she recommends traveling south to Tulum in Mexico’s stunning Riviera Maya,as well as inland to Valladolid and even as far west as Celestún if time permits,in a quest to discover the many different ways the cacao bean is used in the local cuisine.
Still hungry for more? Click here to discover the top five local foods of Mexico’s Riviera Maya!