Who Can Live Without Chocolate in Their Lives?

Learn more about chocolate and then make some gorgeous gluten-free vegan chocolate brownies with chia seeds, quinoa and other South American ingredients that have been around for thousands of years. This is a picture of a slab of cacao from Cusco in Peru. It is used to make the chocolate beverage that was so highly prized in ancient times. It has all the cocoa butter so it tastes almost waxy. Not like the Lindt or Cadbury's chocolate we know back home. It has a touch of cinnamon that makes it interesting.

Slabs of cacao for making beveragesCredit: Sue Visser

They say that chocolate (cacao) boosts mental alertness, heart health and physical stamina but it is an addictive substance. Well, life is also addictive and it is not worth living without chocolate!

The history of cacao and hence our chocolate addiction

Theobroma cacao is the tree that is responsible for our chocolate addiction. Over 3000 years ago the Olmec Civilization made a beverage from the nuts of the cacao tree to fortify their soldiers. The word Theobroma means food of the gods and many ancient sacrificial rituals included the use of cacao-based beverages. The Mayan word for the plant was "cacao" and the Aztecs called it xocoatl.

The nuts were roasted and pounded into a dark brown, bitter powder known as cocoa powder. They mixed it with ground-up maize (corn) and added a fiery dash of chilli. This ancient beverage that became popular with many of the ancient South American civilisations that included the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. Over the years it was sweetened with honey and often flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon.

The cacao treeCacao fruit with nuts

The cacao tree grows in lush, tropical lowland areas like the outer regions of the Amazon rainforest where it originally thrived. The oval pale green cacao pods resemble small rugby balls that grow directly from the branches of the tree. When the fresh fruit is broken open we can see that each nut is surrounded by a pleasant tasting fruity flesh that can also be eaten. Native people used to dry out the nuts after cleaning off the fruit and they used them as a form of currency. Edible money, you could say!

The tiny cacao nibs are tightly packed into the nuts. They contain 25% fat, 15% protein and 10% carbohydrates. The stimulating effect comes from theobromine (2%) and caffeine (0.2%). Other stimulants are also present, making cocoa a truly addictive “upper”. Cocoa also has natural flavonoids, antioxidants and endorphins that help the body to cope with pain. Most of the fat is extracted from the beans and is used as cacao butter. This is a popular ingredient in the food and cosmetic industry.

The Spanish Conquistadors introduced cacao, or xocatl, as the Aztecs called it, to Europe to compete with tea and coffee as another drugs for the high society of the 17th century continent. the English would pronounce xocatl as "shocatil". It was sweetened with sugar. In France they added milk to the drink and called it “choc au lait” from which the word chocolate is derived. European confectioners made it into the solid form that we now call milk chocolate. Cacao in any form was used as an aphrodisiac. It was given to women before their periods or when they were moody. Ironically cacao beverages were given to the victims of sacrificial ceremonies prior to having their throats slit, to please the Gods and ensure good crops.

The pictures below are of sacrificial alters in the Yucatán in Mexico near the temples

Sacrificial altarAnton up for sacrifice

The health benefits of chocolate

Today women still crave chocolate when they are premenstrual or feeling low. Cocoa increases serotonin uptake and circulation in the brain, helps to counteract stress. It creates a sense of euphoria when excessive amounts are ingested. Chocolate is the world’s most popular comfort food and apart from what is often a very high sugar and fat content, the mood-enhancing effects, stimulants and endorphins are still present. Cocoa is used therapeutically as a central nervous system stimulant and as a heart and kidney tonic. Cocoa is a diuretic and possesses anti-bacterial action that is effective against boils and septicaemia.

What is the healthiest way to consume cacao?

It is obviously more beneficial to boost your levels of this dark and delicious wonder drug with the real stuff: what we call cacao or cocoa powder. Modern cocoa powder is free of the fattening coco butter and good brands have higher levels of the beneficial chemical components. The most natural way to consume cacao is to chew cacao nibs. These are the components within the seed, with the full fat content. When lightly roasted the almond-shaped cacao beans can be crumbled between the fingers to release the pure cacao granules that taste like some brands of sugar-free dark chocolate.

Chia and quinoa were also power foods of the ancient people of South America

Chia crops were cultivated and the seeds from this plant belonging to the salvia family were eaten by the ancient Aztecs, Incas and Mayans. ‘Chia’ means strength and the nutritious seeds were fed to the warriors during long journeys for sustenance. Their high omega 3 oil, protein, fibre and mineral content means they are very nutrient-dense foods.

Macchu Pichu with Sue and Jim

Quinoa was called ‘chisaya mama’, the mother of all grains by the Inca people. They cultivated it on mountain terraces at high altitudes. It is a hardy crop and it also grew at Machu Picchu to provide a nutritious meal that imparted super-human strength to the Inca people. The seed (not grain) from the leafy quinoa bush is gluten-free and is very digestible. It suits all blood types and provides enough amino acids to qualify as a complete self-standing form of protein for vegans. It is almost fat-free and rich in beneficial forms of fibre.

Harness the health benefits of cacao, quinoa and chia seeds at home in the kitchen

Today we too can benefit from quinoa and chia, especially when combined with cacao (or cocoa) powder and made into a delicious chocolate brownie that is gluten-free and vegan friendly.

Inca Chocolate Brownies

This vegan recipe is gluten-free. The sugar can be substituted with a suitable alternative if required. But using a bit of brown sugar gives a better and moister texture with these brownies.

Quinoa and chiaInca brownies

Yield: this recipe makes 12 brownies of an average size of 5cm square and 1cm thick. You can double up to make more of the mixture to spread into the average baking tray measuring 20 x 30cm x 1cm high. The recipe below covers an area of about 22 x 16 cm.

Ingredients and instructions

First soak the seeds - well ahead of time:

  • 15 ml Chia seeds
  • 150 ml water
  • Soak the chia seeds in the water a few hours or even days before baking. This mixture has a jelly like consistency and provides a good alternative to gum-based binders or eggs for gluten-free baking.

When you are ready to bake; turn on your oven to pre-heat at 180 degrees C.

All you need to do is stir the following ingredients into a bowl containing the soaked chia seeds.

  • 150 ml quinoa flour
  • 100 ml brown sugar or alternatives: 50 ml xylitol or 50 ml maple or agave syrup.
  • Top up with a little stevia if needed but brown sugar provides the best baking results.
  • 50 ml natural cocoa powder
  • 50 ml olive, canola or rice bran oil
  • 15 ml baking powder
  • 50ml dark chocolate chips or natural cocoa nibs
  • 100 ml crushed pecan nuts, almonds, Brazil nuts or walnuts
  • 50 ml raisins

Mix all the ingredients to form delicious dark brown gorgeous gooey dough. Add a pinch of salt to it and taste it a few times if you are a serious chocolate connoisseur. A little salt brings out the full flavour. To some of the mixture you can add a few chopped chillies because this is also an Inca tradition. Cinnamon is also included in some of the original recipes for Inca chocolate mixtures. 

Spread the mixture in a shallow greased baking tray to a thickness of 1cm. Alternatively line the tray with baking paper or tin foil if you are using a smaller area so you can bend up the edges to support an even spread of 1cm, especially at the edges.

Place the baking tray in the middle of the oven when it has reached a temperature of 180 degrees. C. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes depending on the heat intensity of your oven. Then check to see that the surface looks cooked, but not brown and hard. Turn off the oven and leave the dough to settle for at least 10 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven and cut it into 5cm squares. Cool the brownies on a wire rack so they can firm up. Then pack them in an airtight container to enjoy when you have the primal urge for a healthy, guilt-free bite of chocolate, nuts, pleasure and comfort. Enjoy!


Cocoa, quinoa, chia seeds, stevia and Brazil nuts come from South America.

These chocolate brownies are a tribute to the Incas and to South America where they once lived thousands of years ago. Incas were familiar with chia seeds and they were eaten with grains like quinoa, wheat and corn. Quinoa and chia are considered to be very healthy for us and are rich in protein and the chia seeds especially provide Omega 3 oil.

For vegans and vegetarians this is good news. For people who are gluten intolerant this even more exciting because when we make our chocolate brownies from these ingredients we have perfect results and do not need to include any gum-based product to bind the dough and keep it moist. The chia seeds do just that. Adding nuts helps to camouflage the grittiness of the chia seed. (That means they are not suitable for fairy cakes!

A further tribute to South America is to include Brazil nuts in the brownie mixture. When we took a trip to the Amazon jungle we noticed the macaw parrots flying around next to the river. Their strong beaks can open the hard outer covering of the Brazil nut in a single crack. What many people don’t know is that all the Brazil nuts grow inside a huge round pod that is about the size of a soccer ball. This big structure is attached to the trunk of the tree.

Amazon jungle

A woman handed me some fruit in the Amazon jungle. It was a large green pod that she had broken in half. She took out some of the segments of white fruit and told me to eat off the flesh and then throw away the large pip. The fruit tasted like a tropical fruit salad. It was juicy and delicious. But the pip was actually the unripe cocoa bean! For her, they were so common and grew abundantly in her habitat. Little did I know that I was holding one of the best-loved of all substances in my hands: cacao.

Chocolate beverages. Death by chocolate and horrifying legends

Back in the ancient days of Inca and Mayan history cacao beverages played a major part in the sacrificial rituals they performed. Chocolate what to die for darling! In order to guarantee a good harvest the farmers had to make human sacrifices to the gods. Children were mainly used, especially young virgins because of their purity. The victims were drugged with herbs and given copious amounts of dark cacao mixed with maize and crushed chillies to drink. Cacao was used by the priests, kings and peasants as a ceremonial beverage during these throat slitting, skull splitting performances. “Death by chocolate” indeed!

Scull in a cave in Belize

Try a hot, very hot cup of dark cacao

If you are curious about chocolate and chilli the best thing is to try some. Add a teaspoon of pure, good quality cocoa powder to a cup of boiling water. Mix in a pinch or two of cayenne pepper and add sugar or a sweetener of your choice. Obviously stevia is also native to South America! I like to add a small dash of cream or cream substitute to the brew. Cinnamon or vanilla can be used, as and when you feel like making the beverage more exotic. It is all about a bit of this and a bit of that. Tabasco sauce added to any mug of hot chocolate works just as well.  Enjoy the kick it gives you.

Chillies are very good for respiratory problems. They help to open up the airways and loosen the mucous, especially if you suffer from asthma. Chillies contain a decongestant called guaiphenesin, an ingredient that many cough mixtures use to do the same thing – facilitate breathing. Perhaps this is why they drank so much of the chilli and hot chocolate at high altitudes in the Andes. Contrary to popular belief, the fiery capsaicin in chillies does not irritate the stomach lining.

Now it’s time to snuggle up with cup of cocoa and your chocolate brownies. Forget about the dark, dark side of chocolate and enjoy it as a comfort food.

For more gluten-free vegan treats have a look at my recipe on Info Barrel for play dough. You can make a chocolate version of it by adding cocoa powder to the mixture. Spices like cinnamon can also be included. These biscuits keep very well. Pop a plastic box of them into your handbag. The chocolate brownies do not last for very long in our family but the biscuits do!


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