Monthly Archives: November 2009


Chocolate Grinders, Oaxaca, Mexico

There really is no good substitute for chocolate—but you couldn’t tell that to the creative Aztec forgers who found a way to create a cacao alternative at a time when the beans were a form of money. Fake cacao beans might have been harder to keep in circulation than forged paper money, however.

Theobroma cacao (and who would disagree with the name—Theobroma means “drink of the gods”) was used by Aztecs in ways that would not seem familiar or even appealing to most of us today. While the pre-Columbian practice of grinding chocolate and chilies together is still reflected in Mexico’s mole sauce, and has re-emerged in a few daring, high-end confections, the chocolate preparations of the Aztecs were generally designed for impact rather than taste. The two forms for consumption were pastes and drinks. Cocoa pastes might include (in addition to chilies) corn, fruit, or hallucinogenic mushrooms. Beverages, which also incorporated hot chilies, were unsweetened and beaten until frothy. Only the ruling class could afford (or were permitted) chocolate, but they consumed it in large amounts. The emperor Moctezuma in particular was a fan. He drank his chocolate from golden goblets—some say as many as 40 servings a day—because it was reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Continue reading


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Larb Nua

The recipe below is for a Thai dish called larb nua. This is the first Thai dish I ever had, though it has now been a couple of decades since my brother first took me to the Thai Room on Western for my birthday—back when there were only a few Thai restaurants in Chicago. He ordered, as he was already familiar with the cuisine, and larb was our starter. I loved it, and still do. I have, since then, enjoyed it often, both at the growing number of Thai restaurants over here and during two trips to Thailand.

As is common in Asia, though this is called a salad, lettuce plays only a supporting role. This dish can also be made with ground chicken, in which case it is larb kai. Enjoy.

Larb Nua
(Spicy Thai Beef Salad/Appetizer)

1/4 cup uncooked white rice
1 lb. ground beef
1/4 cup lime juice*
2 Tbs. Thai fish sauce
1/2 tsp. galangal powder
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
6–8 scallions, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
2 Tbs. chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tsp. crushed red pepper*
Lettuce (about 1 head iceberg or 3 heads butter lettuce)
Mint sprigs for garnish, if desired

In a small pan, cook the rice over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently, until the rice is a nice golden brown, about 4 to 8 minutes. Grind the rice fine in a blender or coffee grinder, and set aside. (Alternatively, if you have a good Asian grocery store, you can just buy toasted ground rice. But this is so easy to make, I don’t bother, since I need so little for this recipe.) Continue reading

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