The term "Mexican chocolate" is often misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused. In short, it refers to a granular paste made out of cacao nibs, sugar, and cinnamon, with other spices like vanilla or nutmeg that amplify its complex and outstanding flavor. Mexican chocolate differs greatly from other kinds of chocolate, and the use of the term is inappropriate for most non-Mexican recipes that use products that are similar, but quite not the real deal.
Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, endemic to Mexico, and it has evolved over time into preparations better known than rough-looking, chalky Mexican chocolate. What native communities like the Olmecas, Mayas, and Aztecs used to drink (dark cacao beverages spiced with chilies, flavored with flowers, or colored with seeds) has become a sugary concoction, filled with sugar and milk, more pleasing to Western palates.
Why is it Different?
Its texture and particular flavor make Mexican chocolate different from other common kinds of chocolate like milk, dark or semi-sweet Western chocolates. It is used in sweet preparations but also in savory traditional ones like mole poblano.
This type of chocolate exists in close variations throughout Latin America. It's widely used to make a water- or milk-based hot beverage that is common alongside doughy bakery products on breakfast tables, during cold afternoons, and at Christmas celebrations. Nonetheless, Mexican chocolate, because of its flavor and quality, is the most famous one.
In pre-Hispanic times, when hot chocolate was a ritualistic drink reserved mainly for the elite, ingredients such as vanilla were mixed with ground cacao and turned into a water-based beverage. In Colonial times, cinnamon from the far East was introduced into Mexican cuisine, where it has remained to this day solidly entrenched as a basic ingredient in dishes both sweet and savory.
Nowadays, the Western chocolates that use spices are novelties, whereas, in Mexican chocolate, spices are inherent to the product.
Spiced Chocolate in Recipes
In many modern recipes in English-speaking countries, the term "Mexican chocolate" is used to indicate that spices—most often cinnamon and vanilla—are included in the dish's flavor profile. Mexican Chocolate Sauce and Mexican Chocolate Cake are examples of this use of the phrase.
Though these particular dishes and other similar ones almost certainly originated well outside of Mexico, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla is very authentically Mexican.
Hot peppers and chocolate—two ingredients given to the world by Mexico—have been used together in that country for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is believed that the Aztecs seasoned their hot chocolate drink with chile pepper, and certainly both flavors are present in complex cooking sauces such as mole.
The combination has become popular in recent years in the Western world. Chile-spiked chocolate candy bars are easy to find, and recipes for treats such as Spicy Chocolate Bark, Vegan Mexican Chocolate Cake, and Chocolate Dipped Mango (all of which count cayenne among their ingredients), and Aztec Truffles (containing red pepper flakes) have gone mainstream.
Mexican Drinking Chocolate
The type of chocolate used in Mexico to make the local version of hot chocolate is called chocolate de mesa (table chocolate). It consists of toasted cacao nibs ground with almonds, sugar, cinnamon, and other spices like vanilla or nutmeg. This mixture, in a liquid or semi-liquid state, is poured into molds and cooled; the solid pieces (in bar or chunk form) are then packaged and sold. These pieces are later broken up and added to milk or water to make a comforting beverage, or a lump is included as one ingredient (of many) in traditional concoctions.
What to Buy in the US?
The two big commercial brands of Mexican table chocolate that are available in the US are Ibarra and Nestle's Abuelita, and these are commonly found in large supermarkets and in neighborhood Mexican and Hispanic grocery stores. Online merchants carry the beautiful Taza brand, an organic variety with different flavor profiles. Several other brands exist regionally and if you are lucky enough to find a local and/or artisanal variety, by all means, try it!
If you are unable to find any Mexican table chocolate at all, use our recipe to make a reasonable substitute.
Mexican vs. European Style Chocolate Candy
Chocolate has always been most closely associated in Mexico with the traditional hot beverage, rather than the candy. Chocolate as a candy exists there, of course, but commercial Mexican chocolate candy-making is just now reaching the sophistication or heights of quality of the world's premier chocolatiers, mainly because the products cover different cultural needs. Chocolate in Mexico is a staple on everyone's tables, whereas chocolate in Western cultures is a treat.
Rustic Mexican cacao is refined and enriched in European countries, and the processes for the production of a consistent, smooth product were perfected there—which is the reason that today, when you want to impress someone with a box of chocolate bonbons, you might choose a Belgian or Swiss brand rather than a Latin American one. But change is happening, and small chocolatiers across Mexico and Latin America are putting their names on the map with quality and competitive products that resemble more the European style of making chocolate.
Which One is Best?
While each variety has its often very vocal supporters, there really is no way to determine a better type, as the two are very different products. The answer will vary in each situation, depending on the intended use and personal preferences. Mexican chocolate generally tends to be grainy or chalky in texture, rustic in presentation, and somewhat less intense—though often more complex—in flavor. European-style chocolate is often very smooth and more strongly chocolatey in flavor, and the dark varieties are often considered more sophisticated or desirable.
Mexican chocolate deserves a place in your pantry, and you should try it on savory preparations as well as on sweet treats like a chocolate cake to understand its complexity and flavor. The truth is that not until you have tried a cup of hot Mexican chocolate have you understood entirely the beauty and potential of this ancient product.