Latin name: Theobroma cacao 
Other names: cocoa 
Uses: confections, beverages, spice, alcohol, cosmetic

Cacao needs no introduction, but in case you’re unfamiliar, the Theobroma you see in its Latin name translates to “food of the gods” in Greek. That should give you an idea of the degree to which cacao — and its most famous manifestation, chocolate — is revered around the world. The seeds of the tropical cacao tree grow inside large, wrinkled, oblong pods. After harvest, the seeds are fermented, dried, roasted, winnowed, and ground before being refined into chocolate. The pulp that surrounds the seeds in each pod is sometimes juiced and enjoyed raw or fermented into alcohol.

Why is cacao healthy?

Unique phytonutrients, flavonoids, and antioxidants make raw cacao a valuable food. These compounds are known to improve mood and focus, help prevent anemia, and reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke. To obtain these benefits, the cacao must be pure, organic, and minimally processed. 

What does cacao taste like?

In its unrefined form, cacao is earthy, with fruity aromas, a bitter aftertaste, and a crunchy texture like coffee beans. The percentage of cacao in the final product makes a big difference in the flavor; high-percentage dark chocolate is prized for its complexity and nuances, whereas milk chocolate obliterates the bitterness to create a creamy, more accessible confection. 

Where does cacao grow?

Native to the upper Amazon basin, the cacao tree played a huge role in ancient Mesoamerican societies; evidence shows that it may have been domesticated around 3,000 years ago and was used to make beverages by around 1500BCE. Colonization led to its cultivation throughout the tropics. Today, Ivory Coast grows over a third of the world’s annual crop of around 5 million tons, but the cacao industry is plagued by child labor and exploitation. It’s essential to buy cacao and chocolate products that are labeled as being fair trade, from verified sources. 

How do I prepare cacao and what do I pair it with?

Cacao’s most famous savory role is as a component of Mexican mole sauces, where it’s combined with a wide range of spices, seeds, and other ingredients to create profound flavors. Ancient Mesoamericans prepared it unsweetened, whipped with hot water and spices to make a drink. Chocolate forms the basis for many people’s favorite desserts, appearing in just about every conceivable confectionary form. It loves dairy, coffee, peanuts and tree nuts, caramel, fruit —especially berries — spices (like cinnamon), and vanilla. Dark chocolate is wonderful paired with Cognac.

Surprising fact:

Cacao beans were so precious that they were used as a form of currency in Pre-Columbian civilizations.