Kakaw or Cacao

Love tsokolate, sikwate, or chocolate? Well there is no tsokolate without kakaw! 

Kakaw or cacao is a fruit that grows on the kakaw tree. Inside each fruit are small seeds or kakaw beans, surrounded by a sweet and delicious white pulp which can also be eaten. To make chocolate, the bean is removed and goes through a process that includes fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding 1. Depending on the final product, the process can vary!

Filipinos use kakaw to make tablea, champorado, tsokolate or sikwate, chocolate bars and cakes, kakanin or rice snacks, chocolate dried mangoes, and more! 

Most of Philippine kakaw is grown in Davao where 80% of the nation’s chocolate is made. Asia and the Pacific Islands make up 13% of the world’s kakaw production: more than 480 million kilograms of kakaw. But most of the world’s chocolate is produced in Africa: 2.8 billion kilos 2!

This all started in the late 1600s when the first kakaw seeds from Mexico were brought on Manila galleon ships and planted in the Philippines 3. Though it was the Spanish colonizers who brought kakaw to the country, it was the ancient Mayans and Aztecs who started it all.

Kakaw history

The word kakaw comes from the ancient Uto-Aztecan word kakawa, and was a Mayan term used as early as the 4th century AD 4. The Mayans used kakaw as money 5, and celebrated an annual festival honoring their god of kakaw, Ek Chuah 6

Glyphs from the lid of a Mayan jar showing the words for kakaw, or “kakawa”. Image from Martha J. Macri study on the word.

Almost a thousand years later in 1502, the first European to see kakaw would be Christopher Columbus. When he first saw a canoe full of kakaw, he incorrectly referred to them as almonds 7!

Kakaw was also used by the Aztecs upon the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. The Spanish wrote that they witnessed more than “two thousand jugs of chocolate frothed up in the Mexican style” brought to a gathering with the Aztec ruler Montezuma 6.

But it wasn’t until a century later that the Spanish, and then other Europeans, loved Chocolate. As this love grew, so did Europe’s need for more labor to make it. Europe began expanding its slave colonies in Africa to produce more kakaw. Though more chocolate was being enjoyed in Paris, London, and Madrid, kakaw actually became more African. 

The Portuguese empire began expanding production among its slave colonies in Central Africa, and soon other European powers followed 8. Africa would become the biggest producer of chocolate to this day.

The jar with several glyphs, including the one for “kakawa”, cut off from view on the far left. Image from the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

#BuyLokal #SupportLokal

Buy Philippine-grown or locally-grown chocolate! Though the Philippines is said to be the first country in Asia to plant kakaw, we still import more chocolate than we export. This is because of large Philippine chocolate brands such as Goya, Cloud Nine, and Nips, that use imported cocoa powder and butter for their raw materials 2. Maybe one day Filipinos can support and rely on its own, sustainable, kakaw industry.

More trivia

  • The scientific name for kakaw is Theobroma cacao, from the Greek words theo for god, and broma for food = Food of the gods!
  • Upon some research on the ancient words for chocolate, I began to wonder if the Bisaya word sikwate or chocolate is actually much closer phonetically to the original Nahuatl word for it: cˇikola:tl. Google says the original Nahuatl word is xocóatl, which it also says is pronounced as “sho-KWA-til”.
  • I dedicate this write-up and artwork to my mama, who made champorado for me growing up. She planted the seed (or bean) of art and love of Filipino food a long time ago.

Kakaw art print


  1. G. Owen, 2013. How Chocolate is Made. Princeton.edu. Last accessed January 5, 2020.
  2. Bureau of Plant Industry, Department of Agriculture. 2017-2022 Philippine Cacao Industry Roadmap. Bpi.da.gov.ph. Last accessed January 5, 2020.
  3. C. Alpad, 2017. “Criollo—the Philippines’ lesser-known luxury cacao.” Manilatimes.net. Last accessed January 5, 2020.
  4. K. Dakina et al., 2000. Cacao and Chocolate. A Uto-Aztecan perspective. Ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge University Press.
  5. J. Learn, 2018. The Maya civilization used chocolate as money. Last accessed January 5, 2020.
  6. T. L. Dillinger, et al., 2000. Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition.
  7. D. Prinz, 2014. Columbus “Discovers” Chocolate. Huffington Post. Last accessed January 5, 2020.
  8. T. Newton, 2017. A History of Chocolate Consumption Around The World. Perfectdailygrind.com. Last accessed January 5, 2020.

Published January 18, 2020. Last updated May 19, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s