The Bisaya legend of Maria Cacao finds a modern incarnation
“The story says when Maria Cacao traveled all over the world, she rides in a magical ship,” narrates Raquel Choa, owner of The Chocolate Chamber. She grew up hearing the story of Maria Cacao almost every night. She dreams of seeing the enchantress’ palace at night. She survived life in the mountains because of cacao. Commonly known as a decadent indulgence, chocolate is part of Raquel Choa’s life.
How did you discover cacao and your love for chocolate?
I was exposed to cacao when I was seven years old. I wouldn’t call it love, but cacao is part of [my] life: there was a need to drink it when I was growing up. But I didn’t know then that chocolate came from cacao.
Was it very abundant where you lived?
Yes. I lived in the mountains of southern Cebu during my younger years, and cacao trees grow in their forests. They are especially abundant during the summer.
What would you usually do with cacao back when you didn’t know it was chocolate?
Part of my affair with chocolate is the story of the seven rivers, which I had to cross to go to school then. Then, we could not leave the house without drinking sikwate to relieve hunger.
Up in the mountains, we would eat rice once a year—during summers when we would visit our grandmother to ask for rice—because the land was mostly rocky and wasn’t fertile. Cacao was really part of our everyday lives. We could store it for longer periods, and every time we were hungry, we would turn to it. We didn’t know then that it was chocolate because we didn’t have access to the world beyond the mountains. There was no electricity, no television, no exposure at all to [commercial] chocolate.
Aside from sikwate, how else did you prepare cacao?
We used it only for hot chocolate because
champorado required rice. Also, my mother thought it would be most practical to prepare sikwate because it went straight to the stomach.
So when did you start learning more about cacao?
Five years ago. When my parents got separated, my mother brought my siblings and me to live in the mountains, and that was when my affair with chocolate started. After seven years, they got back together, and so we had to return to Manila. That’s when I realized that cacao is truly a hidden treasure. When I left the mountains, I also left cacao behind, as if it were a secret.
What did you do in Manila?
I had several jobs: I was a garbage collector, I did laundry, and I also became a housemaid. At 13, I asked my mother if we could return to the province, but she refused, saying there’s no money in the mountains, that it’s hard to survive there. That was the common notion about life in the mountains: that there’s no livelihood there. No one realized the hidden treasures in the mountainside. When I found out that cacao is chocolate, it really empowered me. My foundation as an artist really came from my life in the mountains. I grew up with my children, and we would make paintings together. It’s not part of my system to watch TV because I’ve always thought it’s a waste of time. Even after getting married, I worked continuously and relentlessly, because I believe God put us here on earth to work.
How did your chocolate business start?
I had met another mother who’s Argentinian, and I started teaching her how to cook good Western food. We became friends, and one day she shared that she owned 50 hectares of olive trees back in her country. She then asked me, “What do you have here in the Philippines that I can bring back to Argentina?” I thought for a while then answered, “Tablea.” She asked what that was and I explained that it was made from cacao. I brought her store-bought tablea but she was dismayed with the taste. I was so ashamed that I asked if she could give me more time [to find her another one].
Then I decided to make my own. When she tasted it, she was so impressed. From there, we started our little chocolate business. Unfortunately, she had to return to Argentina soon after, and I was left with 300 kilos of
tablea. That’s when I became resourceful and started doing chocolate buffets.
Lots of people soon discovered my business, including Ces Drilon and Karen Davila. Drilon asked me what the mission/ vision of my company is. Not knowing anything about business, I asked her what that term meant. After she explained it to me, I then said, “My dream is to tell the whole world that we Filipinos know how to make chocolate.”
I continue to create lots of things from cacao. I don’t want to create for the sake of trends; I always create for a reason and for a purpose. Everything, all the chocolate that you see in my stores, has a story behind them.
Is it your advocacy to spread the word about local cacao?
I do chocolate feeding in the mountains every year. I grew up not knowing the uses of cacao, so my advocacy is raising cacao awareness among farmers, and for consumers to give value to our chocolate—that behind every bar of chocolate are the people who had produced it, which are the farmers.
I need more Filipinos to be aware of the uses of cacao so that one day, the Philippines would be known as the “chocolate islands.” That’s why I made cacao de bola. If there’s a
queso de bola, there should be a cacao de bola.
Why is there a need for people to know about cacao?
Because there are many misconceptions about it: that it’s fattening, it induces high blood, etc. Pure cacao has 11 percent fiber, 18 percent iron, zero sugar, zero sodium, and zero cholesterol. I believe that cacao is not only a sweet dessert but is also medicine. Every time I gave birth, I would drink
sikwate before pushing out the baby. Like I said, it is really a part of my life.
What’s next for Chocolate Chamber?
Raquel Emmolience, a beauty brand that I will launch and would feature primers, moisturizers, and spa or massage products. We’re also conceptualizing small kiosks that would be called Batirol by Chocolate Chamber.
RAQUEL CHOA OPENED CHOCOLATE CHAMBERIN 2015. SINCE THEN, SHE NEVER STOPPED INNOVATING. SHE REPRESENTED THE PHILIPPINES IN ‘LE SALON DU CHOCOLAT IN NEW YORK ANDPRESENTED THE CACAO DE BOLA.
RAQUEL CHOA NOW OFFERS DIFFERENT HOT CHOCOLATE VARIETIES INCLUDING MAYAN, AZTEC, MEXICAN, AND SPANISH AT THE CHOCOLATE CHAMBER (ABOVE). THE REGULAR CHOCOLATE CUPCAKE IS TOPPED WITH CACAO DE BOLA AND CACAO BLOSSOMS (LEFT).