My father was a man of simple German tastes and so I was a bit concerned about how he would take to Japanese food on his first visit here.  There was no need to worry, he lapped up everything from sukiyaki to sushi. But at the end of his stay, when I asked what Japanese food he liked best, I was surprised to hear him praise the glories of Japanese chocolate!  He wanted to know how they were able to make such delicious chocolate delicacies that were just the right size, texture and sweetness. I had no answer, nor did any of the Japanese I asked.  In fact, they couldn’t even tell me when the Japanese first started eating chocolate. Now, many years later, I searched the Internet for the answer but still couldn’t find an explanation.  But I was able to find out something about the long journey of chocolate from the jungles of the Yucatan to the chocolatiers of Harajuku.

Japanese Shigeo Hirai wins the World Chocolate Masters 2009 (click image)

About 3000 years ago the Mayan people of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula discovered the magical properties of the cacao bean. At first they gathered the beans from the trees in the rain forest but later they cultivated cacao trees closer to their villages. They ground the beans into a paste, added water, cornmeal, and chilli peppers to make a spicy, bitter chocolate drink called chocolatl. It became a popular drink even though they had no sugar to offset the bitter taste. They probably got hooked on the drink because cacao contains a mild stimulant called PEA (phenylethylamine) that gives an energy rush.

Besides the rush, many believe it works as an aphrodisiac because of the effect PEA seems to have on the libido.That’s never been proven, but the belief that it had medicinal powers was proven when scientists later found it contains flavonoids and antioxidants that protect the body from disease.

Around 1400, the Aztecs discovered cacao through trade with the Maya. Like the Maya, Aztec priests offered cacao to the gods in elaborate religious rituals. The Aztecs did not allow common people to have the precious drink. It was a privilege reserved for soldiers and the upper crust of society. Common people did start to mix cacao into their cooking sauces, creating the popular Mexican mole dishes. Cacao beans were so valuable they were used as currency for trade and taxes.

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Christopher Columbus was offered a ceremonial toast with chocolatl on his fourth trip. Though he probably had trouble swallowing the bitter drink, he was impressed with the revitalizing effect it had on the American natives.  He took it back to Spain where eventually chefs added sugar and vanilla. At first, the expensive import was reserved as a status symbol for the upper classes of Europe.

During the 18th century the cacao trade was so profitable that it was fought over by plantation armies, colonial navies and even pirates.

Eventually, the price dropped, and the hot chocolate beverage became wildly popular throughout Europe.There was no solid chocolate until 1847 when an English company called Fry&Sons discovered how to make it. Then in 1876, Daniel Peter of Switzerland developed a way to make milk chocolate.

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The Spanish colonials set up plantations using slaves and wage laborers to harvest cacao and sugar cane. Today cacao beans are still farmed basically the same way as the Aztecs and Maya farmed them – by hand. In 1910, William Cadbury organized a group of American and English chocolate companies who refused to buy cacao from plantations with harsh working conditions. But even today, slave labor is still used on some cacao plantations when the price of cacao beans falls.

The Japanese first got a taste of chocolate in 1797 from Dutch sailors in Nagasaki. It was first sold in some exclusive shops in Tokyo in 1878.Morinaga was the first to produce chocolate domestically in 1918 and Meiji jumped into the market in 1926. Chocolate was scarce during the war years but American soldiers made it a popular treat after the war. In 1960 Morinaga encouraged women to give men chocolate for Valentine’s Day. Today Japan is a major producer of chocolate candy, but as much as they make and as delicious as it is, Japan still consumes less chocolate than most western countries.

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