You probably know that chile peppers and corn are native to Mexico, but did you know that chocolate is from Mexico, as well? When you hear the word “chocolate,” you may think of the famed Swiss candy, but without the Aztecs and Moctezuma, that would never have existed.
Moctezuma, sometimes spelled Montezuma, was the Emperor of the Aztec empire when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519. When Cortés and his men arrived, Moctezuma greeted them with great fanfare.
Mexican Chocolate and the Fall of the Aztecs
Although there are now historical records to contest this, tradition holds that the Aztec people considered Cortés to be the reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl.
Believing Cortés to be a god, Moctezuma treated him to the finest foods that he had to offer. Among these: chocolate, fruit of the cacao tree which, according to the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the god himself is said to have bestowed on humanity. Banished for revealing this secret of the gods, he was to return one day, as a white-faced god.
Although Cortés had never heard of chocolate, its consumption dates back to 1900 BC in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs even gave chocolate its name: it likely comes from xocolātl, a word in Nahuatl that means “bitter water.” Although we generally consume chocolate that has been sweetened, in its natural state it is indeed quite bitter.
Plus, the Mexican chocolate that Cortés and his men encountered was very different from the chocolate that we know today.
For starters, the chocolate of that time was only served as a drink. It was a frothy, spicy beverage, with chile peppers, spices such as vanilla, and corn meal, sweetened with honey. It was much like the still-traditional drink atole.
Importance of Cacao
Given its particular flavor and texture, Spanish conquistadors appear not to have enjoyed early Mexican chocolate very much. However, it was clearly an important part of the culture very valued by the Aztecs.
The upper class enjoyed chocolate and used it in religious ceremonies and even traded as currency.
Surprisingly, the Aztecs themselves did not produce the cacao needed for chocolate, as their climate wasn’t suitable. As an imported product, it was even more of a luxury.
Cacao seeds were also required by the Aztecs as taxes or tributes from those they had conquered. Moctezuma himself was a great fan of chocolate and was said to drink up to fifty cups of it each night after dinner, from a golden cup.
Recognizing its possible applications, the Spanish took the precious ingredient back to Europe despite not understanding its appeal – just in case. There, they added sugar and voilà: the chocolate we know and love.
Beyond its delicious taste, chocolate has lots of health benefits. For example, cocoa beans have high levels of flavonoids, which have antioxidant, protective effects.
Dark chocolate may also help with the circulatory system and reduce blood pressure. And, not surprising to those of us who love a good chocolate break, it may help cognition.
In addition to his critical role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Moctezuma was also responsible for increasing the size of the Aztec Empire. Still, it’s clear that one of his biggest legacies is the spread of this Latin food throughout Europe, and then the rest of the world.