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.
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
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.