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  • Asian Cocoa

AN INTRODUCTION

HISTORIES & MYSTERIES

The cocoa is indigenous in tropical America. It is therefore alien to Asia and the history of chocolate is very much linked to the region’s colonial history. Fragile cocoa trees, preferably from the strongest species such as Forastero and Trinitario, were carefully transplanted into foreign countries after travelling along the spice road.


In Asia, the first trees were brought for cultivation in the 16th century by Spanish and, later, Dutch colonisers.

There were basically two trade routes:

- The first one, called the Spanish one, linked Mexico, then a Spanish colony, to the Philippines. The ships made one or two round-trip voyages per year between the ports of Acapulco and Manila. It is said that the small trees have been transported in mini-greenhouses in order to maintain a satisfactory temperature and level of humidity.

- The second route is known as the Dutch route: the Dutch, who occupied the coast of Venezuela, introduced cocoa cultivation to the island of Ceylan in the 18th century as well as in Java by the end of the 18th century. They expected a cash crop to compensate for their weak coffee production. Contrarily to the Spanish-ruled Philippines, it did not work so well, although Amsterdam, at that time, became the world hub for cocoa trading.

From Ceylan, pods were also brought to Malaysia.


Spanish galleon routes (white); Portuguese routes, operational from 1498 to 1640 (blue)

Source: By World_Topography.jpg: NASA/JPL/NIMAderivative work: Uxbona (talk) - World_Topography.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10344087


Much later the French transported cocoa trees to Indochina, but its culture was not a success either. In Taiwan, the Japanese brought pods in the 1920s and started cultivating cocoa in their colony until WWII. Finally, in India, the cultivation of cocoa trees is much more recent. It dates back to the 1960s and was the result of the British company Cadbury’s initiative.


From then on, interestingly, the local production of cocoa beans in Asia has grown largely beyond the colonial framework as the culture has been progressively reappropriated by the local people.



When looking more closely, it appears that the origins of Asian cocoa are still shrouded in mystery. Contradictory and fragmented narratives abound, involving Jesuit priests, explorers like Magellan, traders and even the bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. How the cocoa pods and beans have been integrated into the local cultures and systems of beliefs is another largely undeciphered field of research.


In Latin America, there are stories featuring Christ taking refuge under a cocoa tree, which protected him with its flower. As such, cocoa had to be drunken only during religious ceremonies. However, during the Inquisition, chocolate was associated with witchcraft, complicating the relationships between cocoa and the Church. One can wonder, for instance, how these stories have been translated and appropriated in Christian Asian colonised countries.


It is fascinating to learn how Asian people consume or make use of cocoa.

In the Philippines, where the history of cocoa has been the longest, cacao is known as tablea tsokolate, a thick matter in the shape of a disk that people dissolve with milk and sugar to produce a syrupy drink, often enjoyed with glutinous rice. Its pulp is also used to heal the wounds. In Vietnam, people love it as an alcoholic liquor, made from the fermented juice of the cacao fruits.

More research is needed to examine the variety of uses of the different parts of the pod and their symbolic, medical, or gastronomic values.


In general, chocolate as it is consumed in the West was never really popular in Asia and was not integrated into the local cuisine. Sophie and Michael Coe suggest, in their 1996 book The True History of Chocolate, that chocolate did not penetrate Asian food culture due to the conservatism of the Asian cultures. The reason is also perhaps more pragmatic: in Asia, there was no chocolate because it was processed in Europe, and thus was much too expensive to buy (besides, it melts too easily under local temperatures). Moreover, Western companies did not seek to develop an Asian chocolate market, so the product was not valorised. In China, for instance, the chocolate market was nearly nonexistent until the 1990s and the arrival of the big Western companies Hershey, Nestle, Cadbury, Mars, and Ferrero.


Overall, the Asian production of cocoa beans keeps growing, boosted by governmental support policies, local entrepreneurship and an increased demand. Today, about 13% of the cocoa produced in the world comes from Southeast Asia, with Indonesia counting for about 11%. Most of the production comes from very small plantations, often family-run. However, the transformation into chocolate remains marginal here, and the market is still dominated by Western companies. Some islands like Sulawesi or Vanuatu are strongly dependent on their cocoa production for their economy.

These social and economic issues are another important dimension of the development of the local culture, as is the ecological impact of an expanded production. Many of the cocoa fields in Sulawesi, for instance, were created by clearing forests, which carries the risk of erosion, reduction of watershed areas, and loss of biodiversity.


Ultimately, the topic of Asian cocoa is very rich and promising as a field of research and artistic expression.


To conclude, a quick note about terminologies:

The term Theobroma cacao was created by Swedish botanist Carl von Linné in the 18th century. It refers to the drink of the gods, with a Latin vocabulary.

Cacao and cocoa tend to be used indifferently. In fact, cacao refers to the raw cacao beans before any processing, while cocoa indicates the processed product cocoa. However, as recalled by Coe & Coe, the New York Commodities market uses the term cocoa for the unprocessed beans, which can be confusing (Coe & Coe, 2021:18).


Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, Thames & Hudson 3rd edition, 2021.

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