Chefs are becoming increasingly creative in their approach to chocolate, writes Jane Ram.

Chocolate has been around for some 4,000 years. Before they went into battle, the Mayans and the Aztecs fortified themselves with a beverage made from fermented cacao beans harvested from wild trees. It was introduced to Europe, supposedly by Christopher Columbus, around the year 1502. Within a century it was popular with the wealthy as a drink. Its supposed medical properties were enhanced by the addition of almonds and hazelnuts, aniseed, cinnamon, flowers, as regarded appropriate for specific ailments. The wheel has come full circle as 21st-century doctors largely agree that (dark) chocolate in moderation conveys health benefits. As chefs become increasingly creative in their approach to chocolate as a major or minor ingredient, it is usually consumed as an indulgence rather than for medicinal purposes.

In 2019, chocolate makers will be paying more attention to the quality of their inclusions, says Andreas Muller, Programme Director (International Cuisine), at Hong Kong’s International Culinary Institute. “The chocolate itself has to be flavorful and with a nice texture, but also any addition needs to be carefully chosen. Consumers are now demanding high-quality in every single ingredient.”

Andreas Muller
Andreas Muller, Programme Director (International Cuisine), at Hong Kong’s International Culinary Institute.

“The adding of Tahini, Salt, brown Butter, Fruits or Berries will come into trendy hands whereby Coconut and any common nuts will dominate the taste to come. The adding of spices to resemble the so called “super food” will also see a further trend in 2019 with chocolate flavourings like ginger, turmeric, pepper, wasabi and even Miso, Bee Pollen, Chia seeds, mulberries and reishi mushrooms.”

Today’s chocolate innovation is not limited to add-ins and the latest creation – ruby chocolate, created in 2017 –does not even taste like chocolate. “Its distinctive reddish-pink colour derives from the Ruby cocoa bean which is unfermented cocoa beans (or beans fermented for no more than three days) that become red or purple after treatment with an acid followed by defatting with petroleum ether, explains Mueller. “The chocolate’s taste is described as “sweet yet sour” with “little to none” of the cocoa flavour traditionally associated with other varieties of chocolate.”

At the InterContinental Hong Kong Executive Pastry Chef Christian Gonthier says these days guests prefer chocolate with a high level of cocoa, usually more than 70% which is less sweet. “The chocolate must be made with 100% cocoa beans which is more healthy than chocolate with other vegetable fat. We also have a new demand from our guests for certified Vegan milk chocolate.

“Purists prefer artisanal chocolate from small factories such as Alain Ducasse’s Chocolate Manufacture in Paris  to be sure there are no additives or artificial flavours.”

Chocolate making is super difficult in the tropics, even with a temperature controlled room it is near impossible to temper and work with chocolate, says Patricia Yeo, Corporate Chef for Shinta Mani Hotels. “We get around it by making chocolate truffles which are a tad less sensitive to temperature and humidity.  And because we generally roll our truffles in crushed cookie crumbs, or nuts or cocoa nibs we don’t have to worry too much about the gloss of the chocolate.

“What is most fun about the truffle making process is experimenting with local flavors: truffles with fondant made from reduced  jackfruit juice, kampot pink pepper & pineapple fondant, coconut-saffron, earl grey tea infused truffles.  We are now toying with one filled with the flavors of amok, the iconic Khmer dish.  I actually think it will work.

“The other fun part of truffle making  is using local  (South East Asian) chocolate, there are some great producers in Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.  Bean to bar chocolates from single origin estates have subtly different nuances.”

The idea of combining beef and chocolate may seem unconventional, says founder/chef Edgar Chan of Top Blade Steak Lab. But historical Italian recipes call for grated chocolate to finish a savoury stew or ragu. Mexican mole sauce is another example of this combination. “Chocolate can be added to savoury sauces and dishes without adding much sweetness as is the case with our dark chocolate laced steak sauce. An intense and comforting richness is achieved by incorporating premium French zChocolat, which is rich and well balanced with a hint of smokiness, into our steak sauce; it brings out the char flavour of our flat iron steaks.  It’s perfect for the cooler months.”

Consumers have become more knowledgeable and quality conscious about chocolate in recent times, says Paul Dodd, Executive Chef at The Astor. “Many chocolate brands are releasing single origin chocolates whereby the cocoa beans come from one specific place/region and in some cases, one specific plantation.  Similar to wine grapes, the cocoa bean is an expression of ‘terroir’ — the same bean grown in different places will have different characteristics depending on soil, climate, environment and the process of fermentation. The less ingredients added to chocolate in the finishing stages, i.e. sugar, milk, fats, emulsifiers, the purer the flavor and the more pronounced the nuances. Consumers are moving away from typically sweet flavours and becoming more accepting of depth as well as tannic and bitter flavours as a characteristic of quality chocolates.

“Fifteen years ago adding salt to chocolate (and desserts) was considered strange, but now it’s the rule. Some things work and some things don’t but it’s fun to try new combinations in the pursuit of creating delicious products. Not long ago, white chocolate and caviar was the rage (caviar = salt) and then chocolate & olives (again olives = salt). More than ‘weird’ combinations I like to incorporate a local flavor into dishes. When I worked in China I made Moutai & passionfruit bon bons, in Japan I made miso caramel truffles, sansho ganache, in Korea ginseng and jujube pate de fruit. Here at The Astor, we are working on a Hong Kong milk tea soft serve to express local tastes in bold new twists.”