Most of us love chocolate. The rich, velvety texture and the earthy-sweet flavor make it a popular treat around the world.
However, have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? The answer is from cacao, a tropical plant that is used to create our favorite chocolate treats!
Both the fruit and the seeds of the cacao plant are edible. Cacao seeds are bitter, nutty, and earthy while the fruit is sweet and tropical.
What Is Cacao?
Cacao, or theobroma cacao, is a tropical tree and the fruit produced by that tree. The seed pods of the tree, however, are what farmers harvest and sell around the world for use in products such as nibs, chocolate, powders, and bars.
Cacao is a superfood that’s rich in fiber and antioxidants. It contains many nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, and iron, making it a great addition to a healthy diet.
Cacao is native to the Amazon rainforest and the Orinoco river plains. Despite the fact that the plant is native to South America, however, the most cacao production in the world comes from West Africa.
What Does Cacao Taste Like?
When talking about cacao, it’s important to differentiate between the seeds and the fruit itself. Both are edible and both have very distinct flavors.
Raw cacao has a nutritious pulp with long seeds that are commonly known as cacao beans. The fruit has a sweet and tart flavor with notes of both mango and pineapple. Many people also describe the texture and flavor of the fruit as being similar to cherimoya.
The seeds have a very different flavor from the pulp. They are crunchy and have an earth and bitter flavor. Cacao seeds contain hardly any sugar, and taste more like cacao nibs than the chocolate bars we buy commercially.
How Is Cacao Processed?
Cacao is not usually sold as a fruit in stores, but can be bought in its processed form. There are a few steps needed to convert cacao from the tropical fruit to the powder that is used in commercial chocolate products.
- Farmers harvest the seed pods and crack them open. They remove the seeds from the white pulp of the fruit.
- Next, the farmers cover the pulp and the fruit with banana leaves and allow them to ferment for as much as nine days. During the fermentation process the fruit changes color and develops its famous chocolate flavor.
- After the seeds are fermented, farmers remove them from the banana leaves. They dry the fermented seeds on clean wood slabs for two weeks.
- At the end of the two weeks, farmers roast the seeds. The beans are roasted on a low heat to preserve and create the flavor that we know and love as chocolate.
- The final phase of the process is winnowing. Winnowing is separating the meat of the cacao from the shells. After the winnowing is complete, farmers ship the seeds off to factories for manufacturing.
How to Eat Cacao
Now that you know all about cacao, you’re probably wondering how to eat it! And no, we’re not talking about sitting down to a cup of hot cocoa or a tasty chocolate bar.
Here are a few of the common ways that people will eat cacao.
The bitter flavor of cacao might not make it something that you want to bite into all the time, but its unique appearance can make for a great garnish! You can sprinkle a bit of cacao powder over your favorite cocktail, yogurt, cereal, or ice cream to use as a garnish.
Another way you can eat cacao is to use it in a sauce. Mexican mole sauce is made out of cacao seeds, and is a great example of a tasty and savory sauce made out of this delicious fruit.
Even though cacao is commonly associated with desserts, it’s great as a spice, too. You can add a pinch or two of cacao powder or some crushed raw seeds to a sauce, chili, stew, or other dishes.
Cacao’s bitter flavor offsets salty and buttery flavors. It’s a great way to unite your savory dish and add a unique kick to it!
You can use cacao powder as a dry rub. Just add a bit of cacao to salt and other spices and rub it onto steak, pork, or pot roast. The result is a deliciously earthy twist to your favorite classic meat dishes.
If you love smoothies you can mix things up by adding a bit of cacao to your smoothie. The result is a burst of chocolatey flavor without adding any extra calories or sugar to your favorite drink.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you still have a few additional questions about cacao? Let’s check out some commonly asked questions and their answers.
Why does cacao taste bad?
Despite what many people think, raw cacao has an unpalatable flavor. Cacao only contains 1.8 grams of sugar, making it very bitter when eaten raw. It’s usually mixed with sugar, honey, or other sweeteners and turned into more palatable products such as chocolate.
Is cacao a psychedelic?
Cacao is not a psychedelic, however, it does have psychoactive effects. Cacao causes increased mood when taken in high doses. Cacao is used in ceremonies to produce this effect but is not mind-altering such as psilocybin or other substances.
Are cacao and cocoa the same thing?
Cacao and cocoa, though spelled similarly, are not the same thing. Cacao is a raw seed while cocoa is a refined product made from the cacao seeds.