Last week on my new TV show addiction, The Next Food Network Star, the contestants’ challenge was to cook a savory meal using Hershey’s chocolate. Not unexpectedly, some of the cheftestants failed miserably, dipping asparagus into chocolate sauce, inadequately mixing sweet and salty, making entrees that were more dessert than dinner. But a few contestants were successful, using chocolate as skillfully as they would use ground pepper or fine olive oils. These TV chefs are not alone. From mole to barbecue sauce, more and more chefs are becoming skilled—and enthusiastic—in their use of cacao in more courses than just dessert.
Chocolate originated in the Mayan empire over 2,000 years ago. The Mayans prepared chocolate almost identically to the way we do today, fermenting and drying seeds, grounding these seeds into a paste and mixing them with water and spices for a bitter, foamy beverage. Chocolate was also mixed with corn to make a savory porridge. The Mayan uses of chocolate were all savory; nothing like the sweet concoctions that we expect today.
Chefs in Europe started adding sugar to chocolate in the 15th century, but that doesn’t mean that they stopped using chocolate as a savory ingredient. They served it in braised dishes, adding it to their duck, hare and venison stews. They put it in Italian agrodolce (“sour and sweet”) and in coq au vin in France.
The most popular use of savory chocolate today is the mole, which originated in the 16th or 17th century. For years, mole has been served at Mexican restaurants around the country. Using a wide variety of chiles, onion, cloves, lard, cinnamon and Mexican chocolate among other ingredients, mole has been a labor intensive Mexican-American staple.