Chocolate has its origins as a cocoa nib-infused drink used in Mesoamerican rituals as early as 1750 B.C. By the time Europeans discovered the region in 16th century, the cocoa seed was a fixture in the culture’s spirituality, nutrition and financial trade as cocoa nibs were used as currency. On his fourth voyage, explorer Christopher Columbus was given the cacao drink. He brought cocoa nibs back to Spain, introducing Europe to chocolate.
Although cacao originates in South America, most crops now are grown in tropical areas of West Africa, including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon. Outside of Africa, crops grow in Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia and the Dominican Republic. Harvesting the mature cocoa pods has to be done by hand, using a short, hooked blade because machinery can damage the tree. The fruit is a leathery-skinned pod that it is filled with pale seeds, which are fermented and roasted to make cocoa nibs.
In each cocoa pod, the seeds are encased in a rich, fatty pulp. They quickly are removed and placed in large boxes, sometimes called “sweat boxes,” for the fermenting process. During fermentation, the white and sometimes lavender seeds are left for three to nine days. Then, the beans are sun-dried for one to two weeks, which turns them into a deep violet or deep, reddish brown color. The beans are then roasted, a process that develops the taste and darkness of the chocolate. The finished chocolate nib is a product of the "winnowing" process, which is when the brittle husk is removed from the roasted bean. The nib is the refined part of the seed, which is ground and used to make chocolate.
Using Cocoa Nibs
Crushed cocoa nibs have the consistency of macadamia nuts, and can be used in place of nuts for some sweet dishes, such as topping muffins or as a peanut substitute in brittle. Because they are not naturally sweet, nibs also can be used in savory dishes, such as in salads or for encrusting meats like duck or scallops. Cocoa nibs can be brewed into a tea -- similar to the way the ancient Mesoamericans prepared cocoa nibs many years ago.
The process of procuring the cocoa nib does not diminish its nutritional value. The nib is 20 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrates and 40 percent unsaturated fat. The nibs are rich in antioxidants, potassium, magnesium and calcium as well as vitamins E, C, A and B1.
- Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage; Louis E. Grivetti, et al.
- Chocolate Science and Technology; Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa
- Industrial Chocolate Manufacture and Use; Stephen T. Beckett
- The CRB Commodity Yearbook 2007; Commodity Research Bureau
- Field Museum: All About Chocolate: Making Chocolate
- Serious Eats: What to Do with Cocoa Nibs
- Photo Credit lzf/iStock/Getty Images
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