It has a powerful seat at the table on Valentine’s Day. It graces every happy occasion across the world – from birthdays, weddings, festivities to the small wins of our daily lives. Globally, it is the quintessential, ultimate comfort food – an explosion of love, warmth, and sweet celebration in one creamy bite.
We asked UAE expats – what does chocolate mean to you?
Chocolate means happiness
“Happiness,” says 40-year-old Filipino expat Iris Maria. “It’s something that soothes me. If I’m having mood swings, I always tend to grab a packet of chocolate and I’ll be happy. For me at home, all my kids and even my toddler, anything, and everything to do with chocolate is always welcome.”
Her 14-year-old daughter bakes every weekend, and each dish has a generous chocolate addition as an ingredient – even the pancakes.
It’s something that soothes me. If I’m having mood swings, I always tend to grab a packet of chocolate and I’ll be happy. For me at home, all my kids and even my toddler, anything, and everything to do with chocolate is always welcome.
Growing up however, Maria didn’t have the luxury to buy chocolate – so when she started working, she took it upon herself to bring smiles to children in the same situation. “I came from a family who couldn’t afford to buy those extra things for their children, it’s something I’ve been wishing to have when growing up. When I started working, every salary I would buy bags of chocolate to distribute to kids playing outside in the community, especially to those who cannot really afford it…. They would be jumping out of joy.” Today, she still organises birthday celebrations for underprivileged children in Dubai, complete with a chocolate booth, which I am told is the party favourite.
Sagarika Majumdar, 41-year-old Indian expat and previously chocolatier for 15 years, says chocolate is her energy booster every midday: “I usually have two pieces of dark chocolate each day post lunch to keep me going both mentally and physically.” This also helps her try out new options on the market.
Chocolate is my energy booster every midday. I usually have two pieces of dark chocolate each day post-lunch to keep me going both mentally and physically.
Her chocolate love story began in childhood, when instead of buying her friends birthday cards, she would create patterns like flowers with wrapped chocolates on card paper to gift. She says, “Over time, it was so well received that every time there was an invitation that the child of the mum would call my mum and specify the different candies they liked.” It was at a New York food festival where she came across a spectacular chocolate garden, complete with roses, lilies, animals, trees that you could later taste, that she embarked on her own chocolate-making journey. She says, “You were just smiling, there was a happy energy around the whole area. It doesn’t require effort – chocolate always makes people happy.”
I purchase varieties of two or three types when I return to home country, most of my nephew, nieces and neighbourhood children expect such kind of sweets when someone coming from abroad. They are children – so they love sweets so whenever they get, they want to eat more.
Abebaw Abie Mekonnen, 30, a Fujairah-based Ethiopian expat restricts chocolate for himself but buys for family when travelling home. “I don’t remember buying chocolate for myself – I used to eat them if someone gives me as a gift. I purchase varieties of two or three types when I return to home country, most of my nephew, nieces and neighbourhood children expect such kind of sweets when someone coming from abroad. They are children – so they love sweets so whenever they get, they want to eat more.”
A special ingredient
Around the world on the cocoa belt (20 degrees above and below the equator), tropical evergreen cacao trees with brown-orange fruits that sprout from the trunk give us this ‘universal language of happiness’ . The seeds are fermented, roasted, and ground for cocoa powder, which is processed to make chocolate.
Carmen Rueda Hernandez, head pastry chef at BRIX Desserts in Dubai and renowned chocolatier says, “Chocolate probably is the most special ingredient in pastry from the very root. It doesn’t grow everywhere and has unique different flavours and different notes depending on where it is growing.
When you work with chocolate, one of the most beautiful things that chocolate gifts to us is that it's very versatile, we can use it to make a beautiful chocolate bark - so we have a very hard shell; we can just melt it down and make ganache to make a very creamy texture, we can combine it into a caramel and combine crunchy with softness, we can use it together with milk or we can just have white chocolate.
“When you work with chocolate, one of the most beautiful things that chocolate gifts to us is that it's very versatile, we can use it to make a beautiful chocolate bark - so we have a very hard shell; we can just melt it down and make ganache to make a very creamy texture, we can combine it into a caramel and combine crunchy with softness, we can use it together with milk or we can just have white chocolate – it is the most diverse one that we have. I don't know many people that doesn't like chocolate.”
Even as young as eight years old, Chef Carmen would make chocolate leaves by melting bars onto rose leaves from her garden in Hervas, Spain, but it was not until her first job working as a pastry chef that she fell in love with the ingredient.
History... chocolate with chilli
Chocolate's origin stretches back more than 4000 years ago to the Mesoamerican Mayan civilisation, where liquid chocolate was mixed with pepper and cinnamon for a bitter rich drink called xocolatl, according to the 2009 book ‘Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage’ by Louis E. Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro.
After explorer Christopher Columbus tried it in the Honduras in the 16th century, and Hernando Cortez, the Spaniard who conquered most of Mexico took it to Europe, it quickly grew popular. It is said that chocolate was first introduced to Europe on July 7, which is why we celebrate world chocolate day today.
Before chocolate was sweetened with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, Spaniards added chilli and hot spices! Over time it became something to eat rather than drink, and in 1847, UK-based Fry’s and Sons produced the first chocolate bar.
Today, most of the world’s cacao is in West Africa and South America. “There is very good chocolate in Brazil, in Mexico, in Vietnam, in Indonesia. It's not about the country, it’s about the variety of the chocolate and how the farmers they take care of the chocolate,” says Chef Carmen.
UAE’s love for chocolate
“Dubai is a heaven for confectionery creativity in all shapes, forms and colour – chocolate or candies,” says Majumdar. Patisseries, sweet shops, bakeries, and dessert bars offer a stunning variety of chocolate desserts and today’s the day to go out and try them!
“Since I’m here in UAE, I realised how much people love chocolates all over the world because it's one of the bestsellers, items that we have. People really like chocolate in all kinds of shapes and forms. It is fantastic,” agrees Chef Carmen.
“On this chocolate day, I think that we need to celebrate it. But when getting some of the best chocolate items that you can get in supermarkets, also go to some specialized pastry shops, and get some of the best parts of chocolate because there are a lot of different kinds of chocolate, but the high-quality ones is the one that we need to celebrate also.”
7 chocolate-rich journeys await
Whether you’re looking for Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or taking Madame Pomfrey from Harry Potter's remedy for healing from figurative dementors, here’s a list of delicious chocolate recipes to share and enjoy for World Chocolate Day:
Share your favourite chovolate recipe with us at email@example.com