Much Ado About Foam

Photo: Mujer vertiendo chocolate - Codex Tudela. (United States Domain Tag: )

“After straining, the cacao is lifted up high so it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth. And whoever makes it well, makes and sells the cacao such as only the lords drink: smooth, frothy, vermillion red, and pure, without much corn masa. Cacao that is no good has a lot of masa and a lot of water, and so it doesn’t make a good froth, only a bubbly scum.”[1]

Those were the words of Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary who wrote about the Aztec culture during the contentious period of the conquest of Mexico. He documented daily rituals, spiritual practices, and culture of the indigenous people including their consumption and production of cacao. (more…)
Dirty Dirt Cups

Dirty Dirt Cups

“Cleaner" Dirt Cups

  • 6 ounces grass-fed Greek yogurt
  • 4 tbsp crushed natural chocolate cookies or graham crackers
  • 3 natural gummy worms
Mix yogurt and 3 tbsp crushed cookies; place inside a small jar or cup. Top with remaining crushed cookies and insert gummy worms.   And so goes the advertisement for “Cleaner" Dirt Cups. (more…)
It’s a Matter of Taste

It’s a Matter of Taste

What happens when you give a group of 30 middle school students chocolate? Do they squirm with delight? Nope.

“It’s gross.” “Yuck.”

To be honest, I was horrified. Here I am trying to tell people to eat better chocolate—when I realize that my own concept of “good” chocolate is not what most kids are used to eating.

I had asked students to evaluate chocolate in terms of taste, and the respective chocolate companies on their pledges to social and environmental sustainability. The activity was immediately off to a bad start when I handed out the cacao beans and showed students how to crack open the shells and munch the bitter nibs. The disillusionment continued as these students moved through the dark end of the chocolate spectrum, tasting bars of 85%, 72%, and 70% cocoa mass.

It would have been horribly easier—and more popular—to throw in a sugary Cadbury Dairy Milk or Kinder bar.

Doing so would have been betrayal of my own beliefs about chocolate. I was on a mission to educate their palates and train the future connoisseurs of high quality chocolate. Yet, what these kids demanded was the sugary milk chocolate that they were familiar to eating. In all fairness a handful of students actually liked the dark chocolate selection. It may not be their fault that they are raised eating sweet milk chocolate. Even my first love of chocolate started with (and I hate to admit) a Hershey's’ peanut butter cup.

Are kids more hard-wired to like sweet?

This motivated me to do some research. It turns out that our taste buds really do change over time and can develop just as bodies and minds do. One study in 2002 by the University of Western Sydney, Australia indicated that female children were slightly more sensitive to tastes sweet, salty, and bitter than are male children. Another study by the University of Copenhagen corroborates this, adding to it that male children have a stronger preference for sweet. Not until around age 13-14 do kids begin to demand less sweet and become more comfortable with bitter. This may also be cultural and overall there is relatively little scientific research on children’s sense of taste and exactly how it changes over time. Because kids have 10,000 taste buds compared to adults who have about 5,000 working taste buds, kids are more sensitive to extreme tastes like bitter and have more proclivity for sugar.

The flavor of chocolate is the most important factor in determining consumer preference, and is the result of a complex process starting from the genetics of the plant to the post-harvest treatment like fermenta tion and drying. At least 800 flavor compounds are associated chocolate, which is even more than fine wine. This flavor will obviously be influenced by the quality of the ingredients, including the non-cocoa ingredients like sugar. Texture will influence our ability to perceive these flavors. By changing the particle size it is possible for more cocoa flavor to emerge with less of the raw cocoa ingredient (Voltz & Beckett, 1997). Grinding chocolate for longer periods of time through a process called “conching” will break down the chocolate into smaller particles.

As chocolate is ground, its chemical matrix will go through a series of alterations to its crystalline structure. According to a talk at the Cambridge Science Museum, the tongue cannot taste particles below 15 micron, which is why chocolate conched for longer periods of time, like the Galaxy bar, has a smaller particle size and thus tastes smoother. This also has to do with the viscosity, which changes how long the particles linger on the tongue. Since sugar is a hydrophobic compound, emulsification allows the fat to come into contact with the sugar, and we perceive this chocolate as smoother.

Flavor perception is the result of a complex process involving different parts of the body: the teeth (touch like snap and mouthfeel), the tongue (sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and unami), the nose (aroma), and the throat (flow, viscosity). From the moment we unwrap a chocolate bar our eyes and nose have already begun to assess the chocolate. The longer we allow chocolate to melt on our tongue, the greater the release of volatiles that increase our perception of flavors (Engelen et al, 2003). Chocolate with a higher viscosity will stay on our tongue for longer (Afoakwat et al, 2008d), which may explain why we can easily perceive the melt-in-your-mouth quality of milk chocolates. Dark chocolate takes longer to go through the full journey of taste to really appreciate its full flavor profile.

Getting kids to like the dark chocolate may not be just a matter of taste, but also a matter of patience.

  1. Sensitivity of taste in children and adults: C. James and D. G. Laing. University of Western Sydney, Australia. Appetite, 24, 68.
Afoakwa, E. O. 2011. Sensory character and flavour perception of chocolates. Chocolate Science and Technology. Wiley. Culter, Jennifer. “The Difference Between the Taste Buds of Adults & Kids.” Demand Media. 20 March 2015. Engelen, L., de Wijk, R. A. Prinz, J.F. Janssen, A.M., Van Der Bilt, A., Weenen, H. & Bosman, F. (2003). A comparison of the effect of added saliva, alpha-amylase and water on texture and flavor perception in semisolid foods. Physiology and Behavior, 78, 805-811. University of Copenhagen. “Girls Have Superior Sense of Taste to Boys.” 18 December 2008. 20 March 2015. Voltz, M. & Beckett, S.T. (1997). Sensory of chocolate. The Manufacturing Confectioner, 77, 49-53.    
La Hapa in Xalapa

La Hapa in Xalapa

I have a hapa way of doing things hybrid style. Food is one tangible instance where this plays out. As one way to learn about Mexican culture, I go to the markets and buy unfamiliar ingredients. This turns into a conversation with the vendor about how to cook that ingredient, or the different names it has depending on the region. Then I go back and prepare a dish based on the vendor’s recommendation and adjusted to my own cooking style. Sometimes it feels like I eat more Mexican food than my host family in the pure sense of ingredients. They shop at Costco and buy packaged ingredients that look identical to what we find in the States. People had warned me to bring American comforts like peanut butter. Ironically, one of my first shocks when I was introduced to my host family was the jar of Skippy’s on the dining room table. At the same time, they know far more about preparation methods and are showing me some of the regional dishes like caldo de pescado (a seafood stew with fish and crab) and chileatole (a spicy stew with potatoes, green beans, chicken or beef, and chile). They have been so generous to include me special occasions too, like a birthday celebration. We learn from each other: I bring the curiosity and the ingredients, and they bring generational knowledge of how to blend and prepare. The eating schedule is another compromise. One of my good poblano friends taught me the Mexican saying: “Desayunar como un rey, comer como un príncipe, cenar como un bendigo” (Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a beggar). This works well for my schedule. But the main meal in Mexico—lunch (“la comida,” which literally means “the food”) and is typically served in the mid-afternoon, between 2 and 4 pm. I am still figuring how to get around this one. The compromise is usually two breakfasts—the second being my version of lunch—and a late “la comida,” which is my version of dinner. But each day is so different that it’s a case-by-case basis of finding the best time based on company and other engagements for the day. Names, too, present me with a conundrum. My English name can be hard to pronounce in Spanish so a while back I took up the alternative name “María,” which has the nickname of “Marie” (subtle difference, shorter by one syllabus). I became accustomed to both. Now my research involves bi-lingual speakers; moreover, I need to use my English name more often for professional and official reasons. Yet “Madeline” is still not easy to pronounce in Spanish. So I took up a closer translation—Magdalena—and within a matter of days people started calling me “Magda.” ¡Aya! My ears perk up when I hear any of the four Spanish iterations or the English version.  And that’s only talking names in Mexico. I used to have the goal of completely assimilating to Mexican culture but have learned to embrace this hybrid version instead. Being already bi-racial gives me reason to seek the best of many cultures without trying to adopt everything. It’s fun to be a hapa! I should not try to hide this part of my identity. Hapa, and proud to be one, I am.
“Tamales, Tamales” y el Día de los Muertos

“Tamales, Tamales” y el Día de los Muertos

Untitled“Tamales tamales. Tamales tamales,” yells a street vendor. Groggily, I come to my senses and smile when I remember that I am back in Mexico. The familiar sounds and smells awake me.
My sense of time is thrown off by the international travels and a red-eye bus ride from Mexico City airport to Xalapa. Shortly after dawn, I arrive at Suites Jazmin, where the owner Miguel Luis Gonzáles greets me in his bathrobe and slippers. He leads me through the central courtyard of orange trees, roses, banana trees, and a fountain to the three-story apartment complex. From my apartment balcony, I look out to a sea of hanging laundry, brightly colored houses with potted plants, and dogs wandering through the neighborhood. This is Mexico, I think to myself. After showing me around the apartment and explaining a large set of skeleton keys, Miguel extends a typical gesture of Mexican hospitality: “¿Te gusta la comida mexicana?” (Do you like Mexican cuisine?). He happens to have extra tamales from yesterday’s celebrations of el Día de los Muertos. During this festival of the dead, families gather to share pan de muertos (a sweet bread), hot chocolate, tamales, and other regional foods. Families decorate altars with flowers and offerings of food to invite their ancestors to symbolically share the meal and take part in the celebrations. Despite arriving the day after el Día de los Muertos and missing most of the celebration, I am still able to taste one of the traditional festival foods: tamales. That night I as crawl into bed, I hear a familiar call from the street: “Tamales tamales.”