New perspectives on the origins of chocolate

Chef Michael Laiskonis is a history teacher at the Institute of Culinary Education in Lower Manhattan. But his subject matter is a little sweeter. His classes are on chocolate.

"Maybe over the last hundred years or so, we've seen chocolate devolve almost into just candy," he said. "Now we're seeing chocolate emerge again almost like a food where we're appreciating the subtle flavors of cocoa beans and cocoa beans grown in different areas."

The history of chocolate was just recently revised with the discovery that traces of cacao—a key ingredient in chocolate—in some seeds in South America and not Central America as previously thought.

"What this means is that people in Amazonia, which is far away from the heartland of chocolate, were using cacao earlier almost certainly than people in Mesoamerica," Professor Marcy Norton of the University of Pennsylvania. "So it extends the timeline and extends the geography of it."

Laiskonis explained that chocolate is made from seeds inside the fruit of the cacao tree. The seeds are then roasted and placed in grinders, where the shells are removed and the chips are used to make chocolate.

With cacao's origins now traced closer to Brazil and the Amazon region instead of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala as previously, researchers say it also corrects centuries-old misperceptions.

"What we're seeing is one of the substances most associated with civilization and a beloved cuisine has its origins in that area," Norton said. "An area which right now with the new regime in Brazil is really endangered."

Whether dark, milk or (my favorite) white, there is one universal truth.

"Absolutely chocolate is here to stay," Laiskonis said.