Savory Chocolate Pairings—And Why They Work
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Chocolatiers all over the world are known for using unusual ingredients like sea salt and habanero in their chocolates. While these combinations may appear strange to the uninitiated, the Aztec empire was the first to use savoury foods to flavour chocolate. It is believed that the Aztecs were the first civilization to consume chocolate; they ground roasted cacao beans to make a powder that was used to make simple drinking chocolate, which was often flavoured with endemic ingredients such as masa (nixtamalized corn flour), cinnamon, and even smoked chillies.  

This would pave the way for several other indigenous American cultures to include similar ingredients in their native chocolate preparations, from chillies in the Mexican para mesa to masa in Colombian drinking chocolate. Conversely, chocolate may also feature in savoury preparations, including several types of mole and the Colorado enchilada. The addition of chilli peppers to chocolate makes for a memorable experience, albeit not in the manner one might expect. Chocolates with the fiery spice include thin slices without the seeds, giving the chocolate a mild spice with a subtle, ripe peppery flavour rather than a fiery burn. When chocolate is added to savoury dishes like mole, it creates a completely different flavour profile that enhances the flavours already present in the dish with a subtle richness while adding earthy notes and smokey undertones.

Another popular ancient inclusion is cinnamon; both Mexican and Colombian chocolates feature the spice prominently to this day. The spice was used liberally in order to cover up flaws in taste and technique, particularly in drinking chocolate. Modern recipes call for a much lower percentage of the spice so as not to overpower the cocoa's natural flavour. Several other spices are used as inclusions in artisanal chocolate today, from dried rose petals to Sichuan peppers.

It was these cultures that were said to have inspired another major development in the chocolate industry: the addition of sea salt to chocolate. The first recorded instance of the combination was in the early nineties when the legendary French pâtissier Pierre Hermé sprinkled fleur de sel (a French sea salt considered to be the best in the world) on chocolates that were served in his Parisian flagship outlet. Paris was the centre of haute cuisine at the time, which saw several chefs from all around the world live in the city for several years in order to learn traditional French cooking techniques, the cornerstone of modern gastronomy. Patissiers who interned in Parisian restaurants and pastry shops adopted several techniques unique to the establishments they worked in, including the pairing of sweet and salty flavours. The late nineties saw several restaurants in New York and Europe feature menu items with chocolate and sea salt, from brownies to chocolate tarts. It wasn't shortly after that artisanal chocolate maker caught on to the trend, launching chocolate bars with 1-2% sea salt by weight. The inclusion of sea salt in chocolate serves two purposes: to introduce a new flavour, i.e., salinity, and to enhance the flavours of other ingredients that make up the dessert. The exact nature of how sea salt influences the taste of the final product, therefore, depends on said ingredients.

The last few years have seen artisanal chocolate makers collaborate with other craft industries, such as the many fromageries that are popping up all over the world. Several chocolatiers have experimented with niche artisanal cheeses with great success, both in the form of freeze-dried inclusions in chocolate bars and as a cremeux for pastries. Paul and Mike, a decorated homegrown chocolatier, sell a chocolate bar topped with brunost, a Norwegian-style whey cheese produced by Mumbai-based fromagerie Eleftheria. 

Another recent trend of savoury-sweet pairings includes chocolate with acidic foods such as sauerkraut and pickled spices. Acid, just like salt, is a powerful flavour enhancer that can both add to and enhance palates even in small concentrations. Popular examples of such pairings are sauerkraut in cake and pickled jalapenos in chocolate cookies. Those who are willing to try new flavour combinations will find that pickles and even steak cubes dipped in dark chocolate make for delicious hors d'oeuvres.

Recent technologies such as freeze-drying and ultrasonic homogenization have been instrumental in making these processes work; including pickles or cheese in handcrafted chocolate without reducing shelf life would have been considered impossible only a few years ago. Pastry chefs in the industry are constantly experimenting with such cutting-edge tools in order to bring something new to the market each year, to both the ever-changing menus in their flagship patisseries and retail offerings sold on the speciality goods market.