Cynthia is our Dean of Beans and the head of our educational programming. She’s been saving her allowance her entire life to buy every chocolate bar possible.
The flesh and peel of a fresh cacao pod is thinner than an acorn squash (and it smells similar to one, too), which might be why so many students in my classes ask if you can eat it. My answer used to be simple. “No. People don’t eat cacao pods. They typically compost them to put the nutrients back into their farms or use them as feed for livestock.”
And then my friend received a book, The Cocoa Pod Used in Recipes by Mercedes Mendoza, from his sister who had visited The Chocolate Museum in Belgium. Mendoza is from Peru and her passion is to help cacao farmers learn to prepare nutritious dishes from this byproduct (cacao flesh is about 80% of the weight of the fruit and it is typically discarded; chocolate is made from the seeds of the pod). The book shows readers how to prepare the pod and includes various savory and sweet Peruvian dishes that call for cacao pod flesh as an ingredient.
This was the first time I had ever heard of someone preparing the flesh of the pod as food. Some recipes were really interesting. Others I’m not sure I would ever repeat again. But as a curious cook and a huge fan of cacao in all forms, obviously I had to try it.
If you do decide to try cooking with fresh cacao pods yourself, here are some general tips for sourcing and preparing them:
- Source quality fresh cacao pods. I am fortunate enough to have access to fresh cacao that we buy for our Chocolate 101 class. Finding them can be easier said than done, but I buy pods from a florist called Magic Flowers near Guayaquil, Ecuador. It’s expensive – about $80 for nine pods. When they arrive I put them in the fridge to keep them fresh for a week or two.
- Cut the pods open carefully. Prepare cacao pods as you would an acorn squash. Stab your knife into the center of the pod deep enough to break through the skin and flesh. Then run the knife along the length of the fruit from the top to the bottom to cut it all the way through. Don’t cut through to the other side because you may accidentally cut open some of the beans.
- Scoop out (and save!) the inner fruit and seeds. Scrape out the beans and save them for another use. You can suck on them to eat and enjoy the delicious, citrus-y pulp, or try to ferment them if you plan to make your own chocolate. You can also plant them to grow a cacao tree, or save them for another use (I’ve used them to make miso, an idea I picked up from a few doctors at Casa Mascia Apothecary in Belize).
Preparing Fresh Cacao Pods
All of Mendoza’s recipes begin the same way — peel, de-seed, and core the fresh fruit. It’s easier said than done!
- Peel the pods with a vegetable peeler. Be careful, as they get REALLY slippery!
- Cut the cacao into small, one-inch pieces. Again, be careful! I can’t emphasize enough how slippery these get.
- Cut out and remove the dense center layer. The book said to do this because the center layer hardens when it cooks and becomes inedible. I believed the book, but after cutting away the center from my fourth piece I realized that it would not only take forever to prepare the cacao but the likelihood of cutting myself was a certainty (did I mention they were slippery?). I tested cooking them with this layer intact and then removing the inner core after cooking. It was easier to remove, but the cacao was even more slippery and dangerous. My helper used a butter knife so that he wouldn’t accidentally cut himself.
The first recipe I tried from the book was for fried cacao pod chips. I was immediately drawn to thinly slicing and frying the cacao in hot oil, but it was a lot of work, very expensive, and pretty tasteless with an odd slippery texture. It’s much easier to make chips with potatoes or nearly anything else. But if you’re curious:
Recipe for Cacao Pod Chips (adapted from Using the Cacao Pod in Recipes)
- 1 fresh cocoa pod cut, peeled, cored, and seeded
- At least 2 cups of neutral, high-heat vegetable oil
- Salt to taste
- With a very sharp knife, slice the prepared cacao fruit as thinly as you can.
- In a small, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil until it’s very hot; 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit. Drop the cacao slices, a few at a time, into the hot oil and fry them until they turn golden brown, about 1-3 minutes per batch.
- With a slotted spoon, removed the finished chips and let them cool on a rack over paper towels. While they’re cooling, sprinkle with salt to taste.
- Fry the remainder of the cacao slices, adjusting the temperature of the oil as needed to keep it steady.
- Eat immediately and enjoy.
Many of the other recipes in the book–including a spicy chili dish I was eying–were quite similar in that the first step is to puree the pod. That didn’t sound hard at all! I make purees all the time due to my obsessive desire to make everything from scratch. But I soon found out otherwise…
The puree on its own is a nutritious and thick start to soups and stews that can be fun to play with in the kitchen. Though simply making the puree was so laborious and time-intensive that I decided to just use my own kitchen skills to make a jam from the pectin-rich cacao pod boiling liquid. My co-workers thought the jam tasted more complex than regular blueberry jam, with a subtle creamy flavor. While the cacao pods make for good jam, it wasn’t chocolatey at all, and it didn’t taste like the lychee/citrusy cacao fruit smoothie we serve in the SF cafes, either. I don’t think I would do it again.
Recipe for Fresh Cacao Fruit Puree (adapted from Using the Cacao Pod in Recipes)
- Fresh cacao pods
- Water to cover by at least one inch
- Simmer the peeled, cored, and chopped cacao pod flesh until soft, about 25-35 minutes. Note that the water will turn yellow, then purple, and then thicken so much it looks like jam. (It turns out that cacao pods have a lot of pectin.)
- Remove the cacao pieces from the liquid. Be sure to reserve this liquid if you want to make Fresh Cacao Pod Jam (see recipe below). Puree the fruit in a food processor until smooth. Pretend you’re not grossed out by the resulting slimy puree. :)
Recipe for Fresh Cacao Fruit Jam
- 3 cups cooking liquid from Fresh Cacao Pod Puree
- 12 ounces frozen blueberries (or another high-pectin fruit, like apples, cranberries, or pears)
- 1 cup sugar (or more to taste)
- Remove the solids from the cooked cacao pod, and measure out 3 cups of the liquid into a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring the liquid to a boil.
- Add the blueberries and the sugar. Uncovered over medium-high heat, let the jam boil, stirring often, until a lot of the moisture has boiled away and a spoon streaks across the bottom of the pot, about 30-35 minutes.
- Serve the jam warm or ladle into jars. Keep refrigerated. This makes about a pint.
This was a fun project, and one that I’m glad I tried, but it was more intellectual than inspiring. I’m glad I finally tried preparing and eating the flesh of the cacao fruit, but I think I’d rather leave it behind for the farmers to add nutrients to the soil.