The ancient Aztecs and Mayans added chili powder to hot cocoa for the same reason you might add cocoa powder to a pot of chili. The flavors of the two ingredients play off one another to intensify the flavors of the dishes. Traditional Mexican mole sauce and American-style chili are both renditions of the classic flavor combination.
Cocoa powder adds a layer of flavor to the beans, meat, tomato sauce and chili powder in a typical bowl of chili, making the chili itself taste richer. When chili, or any dish, contains a variety of ingredients or spices, the taste of the dish lingers longer on your palate and offers a complex, as opposed to a simple, appeal. The idea isn't to taste the cocoa itself, but to give the chili multiple dimensions.
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The best dishes balance sweetness, bitterness, sourness and saltiness, so that food doesn't taste one-dimensional. In chili, cocoa powder provides balance in two ways:
- The slight bitterness in cocoa powder counteracts with the fat in the chili's meat, cutting the richness with its tang.
- Cocoa's bitterness balances the slight sweetness of the tomato sauce and the beans.
Adding Cocoa Powder to Chili
Experiment with the amount of cocoa powder to find a ratio that tastes best to you. One recipe at Saveur.com uses 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder to 1 pound of beef, while a recipe at epicurious.com uses 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder for 1 1/2 pounds of ground turkey.
Add ground coffee to chocolate or chili to balance and deepen flavors. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats.com, adds both coffee and cocoa powder to his chili.