Filipinos eat heavy, hefty breakfasts, because generations ago we had to go to the fields to plant rice or cast out to sea to fish early in the mornings, before the sun has even risen. And so we needed full meals to last us until the noonday repast. Which meant - very early in the day, most times when it was still dark - rice, eggs, fried marinated meats or fish stewed in vinegar the night before, sauteed vegetables, and a hot drink, be it coffee from toasted rice, or homemade chocolate.
Tsokolate - hot chocolate drink made from homemade chocolate - has been a personal favorite, a preferred breakfast beverage for as long as I can remember. More so because I was influenced by my dad's penchant for light breakfasts, often consisting of hot pandesal spread with butter, and sometimes jam, and a drink. And so for me tsokolate became the star of the show.
It goes way back in my family - as a kid I've watched lolos and lolas imbibing the thick, grainy drink accompanied by chunky bites of suman on lazy mornings. And I remember my mom saying perfect happiness is a breakfast spread of tsokolate, suman, and ripe mangoes.
Chocolate was made in the family for generations. My paternal grandparents had cacao trees in their orchard. Sokugan, sogugan - the contraption used to mold and shape the chocolate into tableas - as well as grinders, huge stone mortars and pestles as tall as a man, have been passed down as heirlooms.
In my hometown I only knew of two families who made tsokolate - an aunt's, and my own. But I knew the entire town loved tsokolate, because these two tsokolate makers got enough orders to involve entire clans in the production on a regular basis.
Tsokolate is not consumed as a daily fare, though, because it is widely known to cause hypertension (now I don't know if that were really true). But tsokolate is served for breakfast during special occasions - family gatherings after morning mass, Sunday family reunions, a late brunch after a night of baile (public dancing) in the town auditotium during fiestas, school occasions, morning wedding receptions, and during feasts for pasiyam, 40 days, bakas (babang-luksa) and dalaw (death anniversary), all of which are usually held following an early morning liturgical celebration.
Of course my grandparents' cacao trees could not keep up with bulk orders for these occasions, even though they bear fruit year-round. When we made chocolate for major occasions we bought the prized cacao beans from the mountains of Isabela. These were sold by the salop, or ganta - a small wooden box containing six litse, or chupa (a small can used to measure out rice, legumes, sugar and other commodities before the now common practice of selling them by the kilo). Isabela cacao produce fragrant, golden bronze chocolate replete with oil, unlike those grown in Pangasinan which have muddy color and a flat aroma.
For family consumption we just wait for the cacao fruits in my lola's backyard to mature for about 1 1/2 to 2 months, watching the elongated fruits turn from green to pink, to red and finally to yellow as they ripen.
We discard the flesh of the cacao fruit, but I've heard that in other places, particularly in Bicol and Laguna, the sweetish white pulp inside the thick, wrinkled skin is eaten. The cacao beans are dried for about two days under the summer sun, or longer during the rest of the year. These are stored until enough beans have been gathered.
When it is time to make tsokolate, everybody helps out to make it a continuous process, so to prevent the cocoa oil from drying out, making the chocolate hard to manipulate.
First the beans are toasted for about an hour on a large iron pan with a woodfire underneath. This is an ardous task - being exposed to heat for a long time, constantly turning the beans to even out the toasting, while minding the fire and shoving the pieces of wood into the clay stove as they burn out (multi-tasking to the core) - but nonetheless not the most difficult. Every step of the way is a labor of love.
When the beans are thoroughly toasted, they are allowed to cool off for only a short while, and then are shelled, by hand. It is critical to shell them while still hot so the thick skins are brittle and so can be easily removed. This always results in thumbs and index fingers ballooning out afterward, sore for several days. The only consolation is a warm, nutty, toasty bite of the cacao beans. Cacao nibs, if you will, or fèves de cacao, straight from the shell.
The cacao beans are then ground. At least we used electric grinders - I've heard of some families who use manual grinders, and I can't imagine how hard that could have been. What comes out of the grinder is oily, glisteningly-moist, mouth-watering chocolate, the consistency of moist dough or oily peanut butter but more pliant. Very fragrant, too, its aroma wafting all about, speaking of what it has gone through - smoky, toasty, nutty, fruity. And I wonder about commercially-produced chocolate bars, because the chocolate smell is muted, dead.
Sugar is mixed in the chocolate, about 1:1, then put through the grinder again. Then pounded in a stone mortar in batches, the smell of chocolate infusing the entire yard, crawling, creeping, to the inside of the house.
Then I wish it were over, the chocolate and ourselves having suffered enough battering, but no, they still have to be molded by the sokugan on the breakfast table in the kitchen, to form tableas. I've seen various tablea shapes across the country, in cylindrical shapes from several sokugan sizes, like the 2-inch tableas of Antonio Pueo above, or the tiny, thin black discs of sikwate from Bohol and Cebu. Or the hand-shaped spheres from Bicol, or small round balls then flattened out in Laguna. Ours is in a cylindrical shape about 1 1/2 inches thick.
From here on it can be eaten, as I've seen my in-laws do (I met my then future mother-in-law when she bought tsokolate from us, even before I knew her son), munching and crunching on the tableas much like biting off from chocolate bars.
The tableas are rolled in cut glassine at ten pieces per roll, and can be stored for years, although of course they never last a week. To drink, it is boiled - at one tablea per half cup or so of water, depending on the desired thickness - until dissolved, with a cup of milk optionally added at the end, blanching it by letting the chocolate mix boil over once before turning off the fire. It is also the premium chocolate added to the Filipino breakfast champorado, which is basically a chocolate-rice pudding.
We don't add anything to our tsokolate, but others mix in ground galletas to thicken it when cooked, or ground peanuts in Pampanga and Bulacan for the nutty flavor. We prefer it pure and simple.
I'm proud of the Filipino tsokolate. For me it is chocolate in its purest form, untouched by mass production equipment and food addditives. Or at least that's how it is made by my family. More or less, nothing added, except for the sugar, and nothing taken away. The taste is its proof - the chocolate retains its tanginess, there is a perceptible and unmistakable arat that points back to its having come from a fruit - as is its consistency, grainy and thick, cocoa oil turning to butter on top when refrigerated.
This is what I send in exchange for glorious Belgian and Dutch and SFO chocolates in food swaps. From one end of the chocolate spectrum to another, although I can't say which one is in one end or the other. Taste, fineness, quality - all are relative, after all.
More Pinoy breakfasts at 80 Breakfasts, the host for this month's Lasang Pinoy.