This Mayan Hot Chocolate recipe is wickedly bitter with a delicious creaminess and frothy texture. Elements of spice and chili help round out the bitter brew, making for a delicious alternative to your morning coffee or tea.
What is it?
Mayan Hot Chocolate or cacao is a creamy, bitter drink made with minimally processed, unsweetened chocolate, chili peppers, and aromatic spices such as allspice and ground cinnamon. It has a robustly bitter flavor with a creamy, frothy texture.
If you're used to sweetened chocolate, your taste buds may need a little time to get used to the flavor of unsweetened cacao, but it's worth it. It's richer and more robust than run-of-the-mill hot cocoa.
History of Mayan Hot Chocolate
Hot, spiced cacao was drunk since ancient Mayan times, and it still plays a role in the food and culture of the Yucatan peninsula. Traditionally, the cacao pods were harvested and the fresh seeds of the cacao plant (or cocoa beans) would be collected from the pod.
The cocoa beans, which were covered with a sweet, fragrant milky white coating, would then ferment in the tropical heat. After fermenting for a few days, producers roast the beans until fragrant and dried. The milky white seed darkens after roasting and develops a papery texture.
After winnowing away the papery coating, Mayan chocolate makers grind the beans into a paste using a metate. This chocolate de metate would be mixed with hot water, spices, chilies, and sometimes corn flour to form a bitter, but fragrant drink. Pouring the cacao from cup to cup helped to cool the brew, and it also developed a thickened, frothy texture.
Cacao is still used ritualistically and ceremonially in Mayan culture.
Why this recipe works
- Heating the water to 180 F is perfect for melting the cacao almost instantaneously.
- Many recipes call for cocoa powder, but this recipe uses ceremonial cacao with its cocoa butter content intact, which means you get a creamy texture and plenty of healthy fats.
- Frothing the cacao helps solidify the chocolate's natural cocoa butter content, resulting in a frothy, creamy texture.
- It's crazy high in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
- It has a little caffeine (about 12 mg) which can help boost energy levels, but much less caffeine than a cup of coffee (95 mg) so you shouldn't feel jittery.
- Aromatic spices such as cinnamon and allspice, give the cacao a deep, resonant flavor and help lighten the richness of the hot chocolate.
- A little cayenne pepper helps to offset cacao's bitterness.
Unlike most hot chocolate recipes, which include both milk and sugar, Mayan Hot Chocolate is water-based and omits sugar entirely. As a result, it has a bitter edge similar to strong black coffee. Spices, such as cayenne pepper or other chilies, provide balance to that bitterness.
- Ceremonial Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is minimally processed, unsweetened chocolate intended for drinking. It is extraordinarily high in antioxidants and has a bitter, but rich chocolate flavor.
- Ceylon Cinnamon (Cinnamomum Verum) is also known as true cinnamon for its distinct spicy, floral flavor. It's a popular spice used in Mexican cooking, and is often paired with cacao and chocolate; however, it's not indigenous to Mexico. Instead, it comes from the Indian subcontinent and most Mexican cinnamon is imported from Sri Lanka. It's close in flavor to white cinnamon (Canella winterana), which is native to Florida, Central America, and the Caribbean.
- Allspice (Pimenta dioica) that tastes of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It's native to Central America and was used both ceremonially in Mayan culture as well as in Mayan food and drink.
- Annatto (Bixa orellana) is also known as achiote, and it is also native to Mexico. It has a rich, orange-red pigment and a very mild earthy-sweet flavor.
- Various chilies (Capsicum annum) are commonly added to Mayan and Central American cuisines. In this Mayan Hot Chocolate Recipe, the heat of the chili helps to offset the bitterness of the cacao.
Is it good for you?
Chocolate is known to be high in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds that promote and support good health, especially for the heart, brain, and metabolism.
But, it also typically contains loads of sugar that can, potentially, counteract those benefits. Because Mayan Hot Chocolate contains no additional sugar, it's one of the purest forms of chocolate.
Minimally processed, unsweetened chocolate is nutrient-dense. A single ounce contains about 4 grams of fiber and is an excellent source of iron, copper, and manganese. It is also a good source of phosphorus and zinc. And just a single ounce contains 23% of the daily value of magnesium (1).
It's loaded with antioxidants. It has an ORAC value of 49,994 (2) which is over 10 times the ORAC value of blueberries (3). These compounds are higher in minimally processed cacao than they are in more heavily processed counterparts, such as chocolate bars (4).
Cacao may support brain health, and the phytonutrients in chocolate, coffee, and tea may enhance neuroplasticity and prevent neurodegeneration (5, 6).
It also may support a healthy metabolism. Researchers found that enjoying a little chocolate daily might help support better metabolic health (7, 8).
This Mayan Hot Chocolate recipe is super easy to make, especially with the right equipment. You heat water, melt chocolate, add spices, and then froth it all together until thickened and foamy. The whole process takes just a few minutes.
- Use a milk frother, especially one that also heats liquids in addition to frothing them. Traditionally, Mayans would pour hot cacao from pot to pot. This cooled the cacao butter, resulting in a creamy, frothy texture. But a milk frother works perfectly.
- Know that it will be bitter and unlike most hot chocolates you've ever drunk. It's an acquired taste, and it's unlike the supersweet, milky hot chocolate you remember from childhood.
- The ratio of cacao to water matters. A ratio of about 1 ounce ceremonial cacao to 4 - 6 ounces of water works well. Too little water will result in a very thick brew and too much means your drink will lack the desired creaminess.
- Be flexible with your spices. I've given basic amounts that work well for me, but you can easily adjust these to your preferences. It's about making it work for you.
- Try substituting herbal tea or an herbal infusion in place of hot water. If you want a little more medicinal benefit, consider swapping in an herbal tea in place of water. Rose tea is a lovely companion to cacao. And you can make a cinnamon infusion by adding steeping a cinnamon stick to the hot water before mixing in the cacao.
Variations + Substitutions
Make it creamy and sweet by substituting whole milk for the water, and adding 2 tablespoons sugar (or more) to the chocolate and spices. Combine milk with the chocolate, sugar, and spices and stir until the chocolate melts, then froth using a milk frother or a small whisk.
If you need a little sweetener to cut Mayan Hot Chocolate's natural bitterness, you can add a little brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, or unrefined cane sugar such as panela. These are not traditional additions, but they can soften cacao's bitter notes. Or, consider making it with dark chocolate instead of unsweetened chocolate.
Adjust spices to your liking. If you prefer it spicier, consider adding more cayenne pepper powder. And if you find the amounts of spice given too spicy, add less. It's easy to adjust this recipe's flavors to your personal preferences.
Vanilla bean can be a nice addition to this hot chocolate recipe, as it lends a sweet, floral note.
Try these chocolate recipes next
You can substitute unsweetened baking chocolate for ceremonial cacao. Alternatively, you can also use dark or bittersweet chocolate with minimal sugar content.
The Mayan word for hot chocolate is chocolhaa, meaning bitter water. In Aztec, the word is Xocolatl.
You should really drink Mayan Hot Chocolate immediately after brewing it; however, you can store any extra in a tightly sealed container in the fridge, and then reheat it on the stove.
- Nutrition Data. Unsweetened Chocolate. (2022)
- Orac Values. Unsweetened Chocolate. (2022)
- Orac Values. Blueberries. (2022)
- Katz, David L et al. “Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease.” Antioxidants & redox signaling vol. 15,10 (2011): 2779-811.
- Camandola, Simonetta et al. “Impact of Coffee and Cacao Purine Metabolites on Neuroplasticity and Neurodegenerative Disease.” Neurochemical research vol. 44,1 (2019): 214-227.
- Martín, María Angeles et al. “Effect of Cocoa and Cocoa Products on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults.” Nutrients vol. 12,12 3691. 30 Nov. 2020
- Alkerwi, Ala'a et al. “Daily chocolate consumption is inversely associated with insulin resistance and liver enzymes in the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg study.” The British journal of nutrition vol. 115,9 (2016):
- Zimmermann, Benno F, and Sabine Ellinger. “Cocoa, Chocolate, and Human Health.” Nutrients vol. 12,3 698. 5 Mar. 2020