Cocoa in savoury dishes? Really?

Delicious chocolate as we know it today, is in fact a relatively recent invention. It is the Fry’s chocolate factory from Bristol, that in 1847, first made chocolate in its modern solid form by adding cacao butter. Since, the addition of milk powder and flavourings, has turned chocolate into the favourite sweet treat enjoyed by millions of people across the world.

The truth is that cocoa in its raw form is very bitter. A lot of time and many transformations were needed to achieve our beloved pleasant and sweet confection. Historians claim that the history of chocolate began in Mesoamerica, with fermented drinks made from chocolate as early as 450 BC. It was used by the Aztecs who prepared it as a bitter liquid mixed with spices or corn puree. Not the most appetising prospect you might think, but at that time it was considered as a gift from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and was believed to have aphrodisiac properties and give strength.

Although I love chocolate, I would not describe myself as having a sweet tooth. I have a passion for cooking and discovering new cuisines, experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients and new tastes. I think this is in my DNA. I learnt to cook with my mum; after years of careful observation, getting to know ingredients, peeling (a lot of that for some reason), cutting, prepping, stirring sauces and licking the bowl, I eventually earned my stripes, and she promoted me as her ‘sous-chef’. To be fair, at the age of 9, this usually consisted in putting a chicken in the oven, or cooking a bit of pasta, but I learnt to do it right, and it gave me the buzz that I still feel today every time I cook.

Since we set up Kneals, our chocolate business 9 years ago, I have had to help Neil (the chocolatier) with the strenuous task of tasting various types of chocolates, different products and mouth-watering creations; a tough job I know, but someone had to do it.😉 It is the omnipresence of chocolate in our life that got me thinking about other possible uses for chocolate. South Americans use chocolate in numerous savoury dishes like chicken mole or chilli con carne. I have always added a little of cocoa powder to my chilli con carne, and am still amazed of how only a couple of teaspoons can change the nature of the dish and improve the final result. You cannot actually taste the cocoa but it brings another layer of flavour, some richness (I would almost say some umami), and certainly some oomph!

So, I started mixing cocoa powder with different blends of herbs and spices. I wanted to combine the enriching qualities of cocoa with a range of aromas that would enhance savoury dishes, a little like a good stock or a bouquet garni with a bit of character.

BBQ rotisserie chicken
Duck brochettes

It took a few attempts to perfect the original mix. I tried it first as a simple rub on chicken breasts that we barbecued. I simply massaged the powder mix into the chicken and left it a couple of hours in the fridge. The result was astonishing: the meat was incredibly moist and tender, the seasoning was tasty and complemented the barbecue flavour beautifully. I had another go with chicken, but that time, I kept one of the breasts ‘powder-free’ so that I could compare it with the seasoned meat after cooking. The second time was even more striking: there was a distinctive difference in texture; the plain chicken was a lot drier and slightly tougher than the meat that had been coated in the cocoa and spice mix.  I was on a roll, so I made the same experiment with a range of meats.

I am not making any scientific claims, and I would not pass off the cocoa and spice mix as a meat tenderiser, but every time, the texture of the meat was, in my opinion, enhanced. I am not sure how it works; some of the ingredients may have a chemical action on the meat fibres? Who knows? What I know is that, now, when I grill or pan-fry meat, I tend to treat it to a bit of the mix. A little sprinkle on fish works really well too.

But I must tell you that my highest accolade so far came from my harshest critic: my mum! I had given her a little sample to try out, but I was far from expecting the feedback I had from her. She called me one day and said: ‘that powder that you gave me, I added some to my sauce when I cooked lobster yesterday, it was delicious! really subtle.’ I was very surprised she took the risk to trial the mix with an ingredient as expensive and delicate as lobster, but she did. And well, if the mix is good enough for my cooking-obsessed French mum, then it must be really good.

Neil’s carbonnade

I have been using the cocoa blend for years now. I add it to sauces; it works particularly well in gutsy stews like beef bourguignon or carbonnade (Neil’s signature dish). A little teaspoon in a tomato sauce works a treat too or even in a hearty bean casserole. What I like about it is that it is versatile and adds a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to my dishes.

More recently, I created a new blend for barbecue cooking because Neil and I are real grill fantatics. I was a little heavy-handed with the chilli powder in my first batch, but the final version is well-balanced with aromas of smoked paprika that marry very well with grilled food on hot coals. It also makes wonderful and flavoursome burgers when mixed with minced meat.

So, to the question ‘cocoa in savoury dishes?’, the answer is, yes, really! I am planning to create more mixes in the future; watch this space!

Find the Cocoa and Spice Mix: