If you ask several people exactly what Mexican chocolate is—and how it differs from other kinds of chocolate—you are likely to get several very different replies. Some would say that it is merely chocolate flavored with certain spices and/or hot peppers, others would claim that the term refers to a traditional product used to make the drink hot chocolate, while still others would maintain that the phrase can be applied to chocolate in any form that is concocted inside Mexico's borders.
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 most others like them) almost certainly originated well outside of that country, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla is very authentically Mexican. 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.
Chocolate With Chile Pepper
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 English-speaking world. Chile-spiked chocolate candy bars are easy to find, and recipes for treats such as and 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 drink hot chocolate is called chocolate de mesa (literally, “table chocolate”). It consists of cacao nibs toasted and ground with almonds, sugar, cinnamon, and often other ingredients such as vanilla or additional spices. 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 the comforting beverage, or a lump is included as one ingredient (of many) in a traditional savory cooking sauce such as a mole.
The two big commercial brands of Mexican table chocolate that are available in the USA are Ibarra and Nestle's Abuelita, and these are commonly found in large supermarkets and in neighborhood Mexican grocery stores. Several other brands exist regionally. If you are lucky enough to find a local and/or an artisanal variety, by all means try it!
If you are unable to find any Mexican table chocolate at all, use this recipe to make a reasonable (though not authentic Mexican) substitute.
Mexican vs. European Style Chocolate Candy
Chocolate has always been most closely associated in Mexico with the traditional hot beverage, rather than as candy. Chocolate as a candy exists there, of course, (some of the more popular candy bar brands are Carlos V, Tin Larín, Bocadín, and Cremino), but commercial Mexican chocolate candy making has never really reached the sophistication or heights of quality of the world's premier chocolatiers. Rustic Mexican cacao was 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.
Which Style of Chocolate Is the Best?
While each variety has its (often very vocal) proponents, 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 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 chocolate in flavor, and the "dark" varieties are often considered more sophisticated or desirable. These are only generalities, of course, and many exceptions exist on both sides.