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The Chocolate Queen of the Philippines

As tears stream down Raquel Choa’s face, I wonder what grievous deed I have done – or hurtful words I have uttered – to make her cry at our first meeting. The chocolate maker has been telling me how she developed a deep love of cacao during some of the toughest times of her life. “I don’t know why I cried,” Raquel says, wiping away the tears with a tissue. “I was also sharing this with a group of six people yesterday, but no teardrops fell from my eyes. I can feel that you have an open heart and you embraced the story.”

It would be a shame not to do so, for Raquel’s account of her formative years is a deeply inspiring one. In adulthood, she has defied convention as a woman and a Filipino, rising above her circumstances to reinvent herself with a great deal of creativity and hard work. Raquel recalled that her parents separated when she was only seven years old; she and her brother were left in the care of their grandparents who lived in the remote mountains northwest of Cebu City. It was the 1980s, and the area was a hotbed of Communist insurgents (“some nights we woke up to gunfire when government troops clashed with the rebels”). Living a hardscrabble existence without electricity and running water, Raquel took comfort in her grandmother’s tales of Maria Cacao, a benevolent mountain fairy. She was the queen of a cacao forest who traveled on an invisible ship down the rivers to the open sea, setting out to export her cacao around the world. Each time her ship docked, Raquel’s grandmother said, it would turn to gold.

Roasted beans on display and a mural of Maria Cacao at Cebu’s Casa de Cacao

I later learn that the legend of Maria Cacao blended native Philippine mythology with some of the realities of the early Spanish colonial period. From 1565 to 1815, the lucrative Manila–Acapulco Galleon Trade exchanged Mexican silver for Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods, resulting in plenty of cross-cultural pollination between opposite sides of the Pacific. The Spaniards did not just introduce Catholicism to the Philippines (hence the name change of the pre-existing mountain fairy or goddess to “Maria”) but also a host of New World crops: tomatoes, maize, pineapples, chilies, avocados, and cacao – with the first specimens of the latter arriving on local shores in 1670. Edu Pantino, Raquel’s business partner, tells me the Philippines was the first place that produced cacao outside of Mexico. “And here in Cebu,” he adds, “we call hot chocolate sikwate, which comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word xiqhuatl.”

Cacao trees flourished in the islands’ fertile volcanic soil and quickly took root in the tropical rainforests, like those of the mountains where Raquel’s grandparents lived. By the light of a kerosene lamp, she and her brother made discs of pure cacao called tablea for unsweetened hot chocolate, and to barter at school for supplies and rice – a journey that meant crossing seven rivers on foot. “Every day, when I was a little girl in the mountains, we used to drink sikwate, but without knowing that cacao beans are the main ingredient of chocolate. And we drank for only one reason: to sustain ourselves. My grandmother – Nanay Nila – always said that when she was eight years old, her mother died in the war because of hunger. Her mother told nanay’s older sister, that wherever you go, when you evacuate and run from cave to cave, to bring nothing but cacao. And it can sustain you.”

Raquel had realized cacao was something of a hidden treasure, and one of the most important plants in the forest. Not only did it relieve her hunger, but in a place without doctors and clinics, where women gave birth in thatched nipa huts, she observed how expectant mothers took a cup of sikwate before the final stages of delivery. “When I grew up, I found out that cacao is a pain reliever and a muscle relaxant. It’s also high in iron and fiber – and you know, our ancestors never knew this,” Raquel says. She also learned from an aunt how cacao was offered as a final drink to a loved one on their deathbed. And in parallel with Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Raquel was taught to prepare offerings of sikwate in remembrance of the ancestors on All Saints’ Day. “We believe the cacao is like a perfume, an essence.”

Circular, stainless steel molds are used for Ralfe Gourmet’s handmade tablea

Raquel’s parents eventually reunited after six years and the children moved out of the mountains to join them in the overcrowded capital Manila, where they once lived. But life became even more difficult. By the tender age of 14, Raquel had taken on a series of odd jobs: becoming a housemaid, doing laundry, selling candles, flowers, and shirts. She picked up garbage, entered a slaughterhouse to collect blood from the freshly killed pigs, and even ran an informal street-side canteen.

Her marriage at 16 to a family friend – a mechanical engineer by the name of Alfred – proved a significant turning point. She left Manila to settle down in Cebu City, pouring all her energy into caring for her husband and eight children but still finding time to pursue her creative interests. And how did she meet Edu? I ask her. “Edu is a teacher by profession, and I’m a housewife. The reality, of course, is that I didn’t finish college, I stayed at home. When my oldest son was seven years old, Edu started to tutor my children. I’m an artist: I love to cook, I love to paint and everything. I thought life was work, because I’m used to work. So then I became a fashion designer, I studied garments and enrolled myself in a vocational school, I started designing and sewing in the garage – the chocolate was gone in my life.”

As Raquel continued to cultivate her talents, she eventually became a wedding planner and interior designer. “I was so busy, then suddenly the house burned down in a fire and everything was gone. And that was the beginning of my chocolate journey. I had 300 kilos of tablea [from a business that never took off] and I started doing chocolate buffets. Then Edu came along and put everything in place for me, all the communication. I’m an old soul, so I don’t know how to use a computer, I don’t know how to use email.”

A just-finished cacao de bola, molded entirely by hand

She explains all this over tea and pralines at Casa de Cacao, her onetime family home that has since been turned into a mini-factory (for lack of a better word) where cacao beans sourced from small farms in Mindanao are hand-roasted and processed for Raquel and Edu’s artisanal chocolate company Ralfe Gourmet. “We go directly to the farmers, cutting out the middleman, and pay international prices so they get a fair deal,” Edu says.

Casa de Cacao is also the setting for what’s called the Chocolate Journey, an intimate cacao appreciation tour led by Raquel herself. I’m led into the next room where she demonstrates the tablea-making technique learned from her grandmother while growing up in the mountains. Edu mentions that it’s a culinary tradition has more or less died out in the cities. “Tablea used to be something Filipinos made at home; people typically had cacao trees growing in their backyard, but not anymore.”

I watch intently as Raquel begins pounding cacao nibs into fine grains in a stone mortar. She passes me the long timber pestle to give it a try, but I am clumsy and cannot replicate her technique, which allows the pestle to swivel while in constant vertical motion. “See?” Edu chuckles. “She makes it look so effortless!” It strikes me how the tablea-making process is a sensory experience that doesn’t just involve sight and smell and taste. “Can you hear it?” Raquel asks me. “The cacao nibs are moist.” She spoons the mixture into a circular, stainless steel tablea mold, presses down on the plunger, and voilà – a new disc of tablea pops out. Next up is the non-traditional cacao de bola, a solid, perfectly formed ball of the broken-down, compressed cacao, shaped entirely by hand and with a knot tied into the top. As she rolls it in her palms at lightning speed, the cacao oil rises to the surface and lends the ball a noticeable sheen, sealing in its flavor. This is Raquel’s own reinterpretation of the queso de bola, balls of Edam cheese coated in red paraffin wax that are a fixture at Christmas gatherings all across the Philippines.

Raquel stirring the sikwate in a chocolatera as her youngest son, JP, looks on

We move onto a cooking station where several discs of tablea are dropped into hot water in a tall earthenware jug called a chocolatera. As the cacao tablets melt, the sikwate is stirred with a batirol, a wooden whisk equivalent to molinillos in Mexico. Raquel vigorously rotates the batirol between her palms to aerating the cacao water and give it froth. With the help of her youngest son, JP, who materializes midway through the demonstration, she pours the hot cacao into a teacup. I’m advised to take a sip and splash the drink around the palate like fine wine. Raquel’s sikwate is a revelation. It starts off predominantly sour, progressing to a rich earthiness and then a long, nutty aftertaste. It is like no other hot chocolate I’ve tried before – deeper, more complex, and vaguely reminiscent of the fine local espresso found on the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sulawesi.

“I’ve been dubbed the “chocolate queen” and the Philippines’ first chocolate sommelier,” Raquel says candidly, “but I prefer to be called a tablea-maker. Chefs at high-end hotels ask me, “How did you learn this? You know all the notes and flavors. Who did you train under?” I told them I learned from my time in the mountains, from the trees, the rocks, the rivers.”

Raquel and Edu have also been instrumental in founding the Cacao de Filipinas Fellowship, or CFF. “We want to make it a foundation to bring together the cacao producers of the Philippines and give them common direction. We also want to address the global shortage of cacao,” Raquel tells me. Another aim is to develop a system to promote high-quality cacao grown in the islands, and classify them according to geographical origin, as is practiced in Spain, France, Italy, and other European nations. Then there are ambitious plans for a cacao academy and training facility in the hills above Cebu – a place where farmers and entrepreneurs alike can learn the latest cultivation, roasting, and fermentation techniques while passing down a precious culinary tradition that has existed in the Philippines for the past three and a half centuries. “I want to tell the whole world that we Filipinos know how to make chocolate but in our own way,” Raquel says. “That’s why each time I travel, I keep on sharing tablea and this drink. I want to show people that this is our identity.” 

Raquel’s mission is to put Filipino cacao and tablea on the map

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful story! This is something I have not known before.

    October 26, 2018
    • I didn’t know either until maybe a week or so before the trip – it was a Filipino friend (and former blogger) who brought Raquel Choa to my attention. 🙂

      October 26, 2018
  2. A very interesting story. I grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the American sweet milk chocolate and have had the Mexican unsweetened version which is sometimes flavored with spices, but this is the first I have heard of the Philippines version.

    October 26, 2018
    • Hershey’s were a big part of my childhood – I love chocolate kisses and its cookies ‘n’ creme nuggets are still a firm favorite. I’d love to visit Mexico and taste the traditional hot chocolate in the land where it came from!

      October 26, 2018
  3. Thanks for a most fascinating chocolate story! Since I live half of my life in Oaxaca, Mexico, I have some knowledge of cacao and it’s history, preparation, and primary enjoyment as a drink. Several “chocolate places” are located on Mina street in Oaxaca. Cacao beans are being ground to the customer’s specifications with various additions of sugar, cinnamon, and almonds, and the aroma wafting out onto the street is a magnet pulling you in…
    Raquel has a wonderful story to tell, and I’m so glad she is working to reteach people the traditions.
    I loved learning of the chocolate connection between Mexico and the Philippines. I sincerely hope you can visit Mexico, and Oaxaca in particular soon!

    October 26, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Marilyn – and thanks too for recommending Mina Street in Oaxaca! Mexico has been on my mind the past couple of years, especially because of posts from some of my favorite bloggers like Lex (One Foot Out the Door), Alison (Adventures in Wonderland), and Jeff (Planet Bell). It is a pretty big undertaking to get there from this side of the Pacific but I would so love to visit in the next couple of years!

      October 27, 2018
  4. I sense you have a very open heart, James. Truly, my biggest vice, my Achilles Heel, is good chocolate. So it is with keen interest and appreciation that I read your story about Raquel. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    October 27, 2018
    • Well, Eric, if good chocolate is your biggest vice, you must be practically a saint! Thank you for the kind words and for reading this all the way through.

      October 27, 2018
  5. This is an example of how understanding the history of the local food (in this case, beverage) can teach us so many things. Humans always move from one place to another whether it’s out of necessity or because there’s a better opportunity in the new land, and people usually bring their recipes wherever the wind takes them. It’s so fascinating to learn about the traces of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines and how the Cebuanos still call hot chocolate with the name known in Nahuatl. Meeting Raquel and getting the opportunity to talk to her and to listen to her inspiring story must have been one of the highlights of your trip to the Philippines! This made me think of whether there’s someone like her in Indonesia who’s so passionate about … chilies maybe?

    October 27, 2018
    • Absolutely, Bama. It’s all too easy to look at food in a superficial way, saying only that it tastes good while remarking on the presentation, when it provides a means for getting to know the culture and history of a place. Raquel was a bit surprised to find out that Indonesia doesn’t have an indigenous chocolate-making tradition like in the Philippines, but then again I guess the only other part of the world that does is Mexico and some of the other Latin American countries.

      October 27, 2018
  6. You had me with the word chocolate in your title—a favourite food group of mine! Chocolate (particularly hot chocolate) and the Philippines, who would have thought they go together? And what a fascinating and inspirational story about Raquel’s life. The Philippines continue to surprise me. Thanks for sharing this lovely story and interesting history of how chocolate came to the country.

    October 27, 2018
    • My pleasure, Caroline! I too am a bit of a chocolate fiend and will just about try it in any shape or form. I also love food history so meeting Raquel was one of the major highlights of my stay in Cebu. That experience has completely changed the way I think about cacao and chocolate – naturally I couldn’t leave without buying some handmade tablea to take home!

      October 28, 2018
  7. Interesting read as usual.

    October 28, 2018
    • Glad you enjoyed it – thanks for reading and commenting.

      October 28, 2018
  8. And here’s that Mexico-Philippines link you alluded to last week! Fascinating connection, especially the linguistic link (always my thing). And what a great personal story, too – Raquel’s life has been quite a saga; she looks way too young (and is absolutely gorgeous, by the way) to have lived long enough to do what she has done.

    October 29, 2018
    • It’s a good thing I didn’t set you up for disappointment! I was immediately captivated when I met Raquel – she had such presence and a magnetic aura when she walked into the room. I could see why people dub her the “chocolate queen” given those traits, her grace, and her radiant appearance.

      November 2, 2018
  9. what an amazing story and process! Thank you for including the history and its original uses, makes me want to visit!

    October 30, 2018
    • You’re more than welcome. 🙂 Hope you get the chance to explore the Philippines soon!

      November 2, 2018
  10. Two things struck me about this fascinating story – first your beautiful perfectly placed photos, and second how incredibly young (and beautiful) she is – after 8 children! Well she’s obviously much more than that but I expected someone older and more worn given the life she’s had. What an extraordinary woman she is. But I must say, having a sweet tooth and not liking any bitter foods I’m not that anxious to try the drink.

    October 30, 2018
    • Thanks so much, Alison – I could not imagine keeping Raquel’s amazing story to myself! You could always mix some condensed milk into the hot cacao; I tried doing that after having the unsweetened version and it was simply fabulous, with just the right amount of sweetness.

      November 2, 2018
  11. Fascinating story and like Alison said, great photos. I never really thought of there being a link between Mexico and the Philippines but it makes complete sense now.

    November 14, 2018
    • Stumbling across that hidden link – and reading your many blog posts from that part of the world – has made me want to visit Mexico even more. I’m looking forward to trying hot chocolate in the country where it was first invented.

      November 15, 2018
      • Mexico is objectively one of the best countries in the world – It has more pyramids than Egypt, thousands of miles of beaches, hundreds of wonderful colonial towns, rugged mountains, a vibrant culture and awesome festivals like the Day of the Dead. You will love it when you go!

        November 19, 2018
  12. James, your open heart is evident in the eloquently narrated story of this remarkable woman. I was clueless about Filipino cacao culture. Raquel’s mission to preserve and promote it is inspiring.

    November 27, 2018
    • Thank you for the kind words, Madhu. Raquel’s life story left me completely in awe – and I have to say that no hot chocolate I’ve had since then can compare to the cup she prepared for me in Cebu.

      November 27, 2018
  13. Such an admirable artisan! I think it’s her fate to become a chocolatier 🙂 Thanks for the great story, James!

    November 28, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Len! She is definitely one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in my travels. 🙂

      November 29, 2018

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