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Chocolate: A Food Without Borders

Chocolate speaks an international language. There is no concern about accents or incorrectly structured sentences. Whether in Tokyo or Madrid, everyone understands chocolate's many culinary dialects.

I grew up in the southern United States thinking that chocolate was a treat associated exclusively with dessert. Now living in Spain, I haven't found it hard to adjust — especially to one specific traditional practice: eating chocolate the Spanish way.

Drinking chocolate, white chocolate truffles, hazelnut-chocolate muffins — the Spanish love it all. Small children, for example, snack on chocolate sandwiches, made with bread in the shape of a hot dog bun filled with chocolate paste.

Spain has taught me to eat chocolate for breakfast. The Spanish go out at night until the wee hours of the morning, and then have a cup of chocolate for breakfast on their way home, before going to sleep.

Small cafeterias stay open throughout the night to serve straggling club-goers and early-rising tourists chocolate con churros, a breakfast or afternoon snack that involves dipping fried dough — churros — into a cup of warm, melted drinking chocolate. The churros are made of flour, water and butter and can be shaped into any form — short strips or circles, for example.

Everywhere from Barcelona to Marbella, I've been to churrerias (shops that only serve churros con chocolate) where paper plates are piled with coils of churros sprinkled with sugar. Because nearly all Spanish homes are equipped with small deep fryers, it's not unusual to have homemade churros for breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Perhaps it's the experimental spirit of the Spanish in the kitchen that fuses chocolate with nearly anything that's edible. One of the country's most celebrated chefs, Ferran Adria, has been called a "molecular gastronomist" for using liquid nitrogen and calcium chloride in his cooking. He created a chocolate beef stock that caused quite a stir, but one of his most adored and simple recipes calls for toasted bread dabbed with bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil. It sounds odd, but why not?

Valor, one of the longest-running and most popular brands of chocolate in Spain, has integrated into its box of bonbons unusual flavors that reflect the most important ingredients of Spanish cooking: black chocolate with olive oil and tomato; vinegar and milk chocolate; or whiskey and champagne with hazelnut paste and white chocolate.

For me, chocolate is best in its purest and simplest forms. A single bar of chocolate with a high cocoa (or cacao) content makes perfect company while I'm working away at the computer, or when I need a late-night nibble. Over the years, I've learned to pay more attention to the label — and the taste — of the bars that I buy for cooking, since every brand and type will have a different effect on the final dish.

Often, packages are labeled with a certain percentage of cocoa, which refers to the amount of cocoa bean solids in the chocolate. The rest is sugar and milk. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the more bitter the chocolate will taste. The percentage of cocoa isn't all that affects the flavor, however. Like wine, chocolates can vary greatly in taste depending on where the cocoa bean is from, its combination with other beans and how long it was roasted.

One other attractive quality of chocolate is that it doesn't have a "peak season." It's always chocolate season.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alejandra Garcia