How wars and army rations transformed chocolate, the once-bitter drink of the Olmecs and Aztecs, to one of the favourite synonyms of indulgence globally.
A few Christmases ago when Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, created the modern-day version of the 1400AD favourite, xocōlātl — considered the first iteration of today’s popular hot chocolate — for their special menu, it was for two reasons. One, says the Mexican specialist, “was the novelty of the drink, which unlike the popular version still had this spicy, bittersweet note to it; and two, the palate for hot chocolate that has evolved from the milk-cocoa powder British version to a more gourmet twist with all the frills (read: marshmallows).”
Apprehensive at first, Chef Seth’s spicy Hot Chocolate that was redolent with “spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla and garnished with arbol chilli,” proved to be quite a success among both patrons of Mexican food and others. This shows not just how far hot chocolate has come since its arrival on Indian shores in the late 18th century as the post-dinner beverage of the Brits, but how it has regained its place as a chef and bartenders’ favourite playground to score on.
Reimagining chocolate, the Aztec liquid gold
Celebrated mixologist Yangdup Lama, Co-owner, Sidecar and Cocktails and Dreams, Speakeasy, concurs. He finds the Olmec discovery and innovation one of the most intriguing ingredients to work with. Chocolate, he says. “may appear to be a single ingredient but in nuance, it is on par with not just coffee and tea, but wine as well. Much like these peers, the Aztec liquid gold too can be the finest and the worst depending on how you work with it and its pairing. And one of the avatars where this moodiness is shown best is hot chocolate, which can be a simple warm drink or a fine cocktail with a malt-like quality.” Proof of this is Lama’s chocolate cup that uses fine-quality cocoa powder and dark chocolate with a splash of rum to recreate the colonial post-dinner tippler with a twist. This version is a take on the Cup Of Happiness, which showcased how dark chocolate and artisanal coffee could create a myriad of warm, smooth and balmy flavours.
All about cacao
This fascinating quality of hot chocolate that can transform from pret to haute with a few clever tweaks is what makes it an integral part of the repertoire of culinary alchemist Chef Sharad Dewan’s Gourmet Design Company. Even though every aspect, says Chef Dewan, “of this three-ingredient drink can make or mar the final drink, the onus of a good hot chocolate is always on the quality of the mix used for the drink. Even the grind and its reaction to the hot water or steaming milk and in which manner it is blended can make a significant impact on the taste, the mouthfeel and the mood.”
This is the reason why a few years ago, Chef Dewan, a hot chocolate fan himself, began working with the cocoa growers of Andhra Pradesh to create his own mix which uses spices instead of sugar to give his version that interesting palate and mood feel. This awareness was also behind the curation of the new chocolate mix of Smoor by leading pastry chef Avijit Ghosh, who not only worked with a bean-to-bar specialist but also growers from Karnataka to create a premix with variants that took care of not just the climatic changes across India but also of milk or cream. In fact, admits Chef Ghosh, “we had to refine the dutching process to ensure we had a grind that worked well with the Indian palate.”
The hot trail
Incidentally, Chef Ghosh and Chef Dewan are not the only ones to have taken an interest in sprucing their hot chocolate quotient. Over the past five years, says leading market analyst Samir Kuckreja, Founder, Tasanaya Hospitality, “hot chocolate has come up in a big way, even beating coffee to which it played second fiddle globally too since the early 19th century. And the best thing about hot chocolate in the Indian market is that it was introduced to us in its finest form, even back in the day when it was part of the military ration during the Second World War.”
Fascinatingly, adds Saket Gupta, VP, Marketing, Rokeby Manor, “chocolate’s popularity as a hot beverage happened in and around Landour, a cantonment-style countryside village built by the British to allow their injured/unwell officers to retire and recuperate amidst nature. It is here that the drink stepped out of its post-dinner limitation to a day drink that could be consumed on a whim nudged by the weather. Of course, the introduction to the masses of this drink was as a Christmas morning special when cream would be added along with marshmallows to give it a festive feel.”
From battlefield to kitchen lab
The rich, dark, bitter but oddly sweet drink became a part of the Indian military fold in 1942 when against the threat of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service, the British created the first Air Raid Patrol. Made of youths from Bengal, this was the first time that the once English privy passed onto the other side and was instantly taken to. That’s the beauty of hot chocolate, says Varun Sharma, Beverage Manager, Comorin, “Much like its other famous peer, the bar, the drink too is adept at changing perceptions with ease. In fact, with hot chocolate the gustatory delights are more impactful.” Little wonder that for nine-tenth of its existence since the Aztecs first claimed it as a pre- and post-battle drink, chocolate was enjoyed not as a bar, but as a drink — a rich, dark, bitter drink, says Celebrations Fine Confections’ owner Chef Mehernosh Kersi Khajotia. Chef Mehernosh, after spending his early years enjoying the club-style hot chocolate, which came sprinkled with extra chocolate powder on the top, now loves the Spanish-style of creating this cup of cheer that uses the milk chocolate instead of dark and the “magic potion to luscious chocolatey drink called corn flour.”
It is fascinating how the addition of corn flour and a few spices — Chef Mehernosh’s Mexican version uses Ceylon cinnamon along with dark chocolate instead of powder — transforms, according to the famous baker, “the simple Bournvita kind of affair into a delicious ambrosia.”
The key to deliciousness
Concurs MasterChef Australia runner-up Chef Sarah Todd, whose fondness for Indian-style hot chocolate was born at La Folie. And since then, says the celebrity chef, “it has become a ritual with me and my son, Phoenix. My version uses artisanal cacao nibs or chocolate nibs that are melted down with full-cream milk with natural sugar added to taste. The purity of chocolate gives the drink both the taste and the wellness too.”
Using the finest chocolate or cocoa is also what makes the hot chocolate served at the Bombay Baking Company at JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu so special. Says Assistant Director F&B, Flavius Chettiar, “Even though our hot chocolate follows the classic recipe to the T, we do take care to use the finest of ingredients that not only deliver on taste, but also on the virtues that chocolate is famous for. One of the many reasons that at Bombay Baking Company, we use Callebaut for making our hot chocolate, which is then paired with house-made treats like croissant, Danish, Berliner, cookies and quiche. Of course, over the years we have added a range of flavours to the classic such as hazelnut, caramel, mocha, orange, peanut and more recently vegan that uses plant-based milk. The idea of a good hot chocolate still is what fits the classic bill of being dark and smooth with that slight bitter note in the end and marshmallow fluff in the beginning.
In fact, adds Chef Ghosh, “the use of marshmallows dates back to the early years of the drink when hot chocolate thanks to the paucity of chocolate and sugar was primarily for royalty and aristocracy. The addition of marshmallow was to help hot chocolate, primarily an Aztec battle prep drink then, take on a more gourmet role first in the Spanish court, then French and then with the British monarch. It was this whipped cream-layered, charred marshmallow-topped hot chocolate that finally made it to the postcard and then to food art and thus became the classic image of a good hot chocolate.”
Today, continues Chef Dewan, “the need of those sugar fluffs is mostly nostalgia as some of the finest curations are shifting gears to different kinds of flavouring and that includes sugar as well, where the white is being ditched for other raw, unpolished, natural versions.”
The drink with benefits, indeed
This is akin to how Spanish Princess Maria Theresa is said to have loved hers — sweet fruit flavoured cream filled chocolate bonbons that would melt away once dropped in a chalice of warm milk. Or as lifestyle-specialist and author Dr Vishakha Shivdasani has it with almond milk instead of dairy topped with good quality cocoa powder, which means the only two primary ingredients are cocoa cake and cocoa butter, the two, she adds, “essentials that make hot chocolate a true celebratory elixir, plus an indulgence sans the major guilt.”
When it comes to hot chocolate, says Dr Shivdasani, “while it is easy to fall for the cream, marshmallows and flavours that can make it taste rich, for a drink that has the benefits, choosing the right ingredients becomes imperative. Hence, almond milk instead of dairy as it is high in good quality fat which means it will balance the hormones and keep you satiated for much longer keeping any kind of craving for ultra-processed (read: damaging) food at bay. As for the chocolate, any good quality, organic, bean-to-bar or powder is worth it as it has the antioxidants and flavonoids, is high in magnesium which reduces stress and helps one sleep better, and has calcium for the bones and zinc too. Thus, making it a worthwhile indulgence, any time of the day.”
Little wonder that French aristocrat and hot chocolate aficionado Marie Marquise de Sévigné, who is said to have regaled her guests with this grail of deliciousness-personified hot chocolate, said, “It flatters you for a while, it warms you for an instant; then all of a sudden, it kindles a mortal fever in you.”