Chocolate culture around the world

20 Aug 2020

Food + Drink

We’ve ventured into the different chocolate cultures around the world to see how cocoa is celebrated

In the UK, chocolate can vary from a cheap bar that costs less than a quid, to a fancy selection, all dressed up in a ribbon and bow. We’ve even explored the most expensive chocolate in the world in a previous blog to give you an idea of how much people are willing to pay to get their hands on the luxury stuff.

However, chocolate culture can vary depending on where you are in the world – although we might see it as a bit of an indulgent treat, for others, it’s their form of income and supports their livelihoods. Follow us as we explore how different chocolate around the world can be.

milk chocolate and white chocolate broken up

Chocolate culture in Thailand

Although Thailand might not be the first country that springs to mind when it comes to chocolate, there are some who grow the cocoa bean there. Cocoa came to Thailand 116 years ago, but it wasn’t until 1952 that production became more popular, as the government started to subsidise cocoa plantations in the hopes of making it a massive commercial export.

The Thai cocoa industry started to suffer when crops which had a higher value than cocoa – such as the rubber plant – increased in popularity, prompting farmers to abandon cocoa farming and switch to other types of crops. Despite this, cocoa processors increased cocoa production, which soon meant that the demand for cocoa was bigger than the supply.

Due to the lack of cocoa bean supplies, many processors were forced to import the beans from Indonesia. However, this wasn’t a sustainable option – the taxes on the cocoa were too high, prompting the closure of many cocoa processing factories around Thailand in 2013.

two cocoa pods on a tree

A few years later, the interest in Thai cocoa sparked back up, with processors using small local sources to gather their cocoa. Thanks to researchers at Chumphon Horticultural Research Center, a new cocoa variety was created, named The Chumphon 1. This cocoa variety gave farmers a higher yield and is now the dominant type of cocoa grown across Thailand.

This isn’t the only variety of Thai cocoa to exist – Dr. Sanh La-Ongsri, an expert in the world of crops for beverages, created the IM1, a hybrid cocoa bean from the Peruvian Criollo and the Phillippino Forastero varieties. This type of cocoa bean has also seen success in Thailand, performing well in the Northern region as it suits a tropical climate. The aromatic flavour of the IM1 makes it ideal for luxury, single-origin chocolates.

However, the chocolate culture here is more about profit than pleasure. In recent years Thai cocoa farmers have switched to using the cocoa beans to grow young trees that they then export for profit. This could be the future of the chocolate culture in Thailand: selling the cocoa trees in their early years means less time and effort is needed to cultivate the tree and also provides an immediate source of income.

Chocolate culture in Malaysia

The chocolate culture in Malaysia is pretty rich: the bean was originally brought to the country from Brazil via Sri Lanka in 1770, and Malaysians have been growing cocoa for over two centuries. At the start of the cocoa production market, Kota Kinabalu was one of the biggest cocoa-producing places in the world, bringing in profit for cocoa farmers and producers.

However, 30 years ago this began to change when Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) appeared. This pest works by laying its eggs on the cocoa beans, resulting in the hardening and damaging of cocoa fruits.

This dramatically affected cocoa production, causing many farmers to abandon their cocoa trees and switch to popular options such as palm oil trees and durian. This is due to a variety of reasons: both crops require much less maintenance than the cocoa tree, and there remains a huge demand for them both in Asia and around the world.

However, despite the declining cocoa production in Malaysia, it still remains a highly knowledgeable country when it comes to cocoa production and processing. Malaysia maintains the fourth-largest library of cocoa genetics in the world, and most countries in Asia still connect their cocoa species back to the Malaysian-born variety.

hands holding cocoa beans
hands holding coco beans

But what about the Malaysian chocolate culture? Although Malaysia produces many chocolate products, many rural farmers opt to eat the fruit around the bean instead, which has a tart taste and squishy texture, a little bit like a lychee.

For the general population, the chocolate market is just beginning to take off. As Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, the chocolate culture there focuses on halal chocolate. This means that chocolates which contain alcohol or gelatin are unlikely to thrive in the Malaysian market.

Chocolate culture in Japan

The chocolate culture in Japan only really started to get going after the end of the isolation period in 1853 after US troops sailed into the Tokyo harbour and forced the Japanese to open their ports for trading.

Japanese people started to consume chocolate during the US occupation of Japan, when US soldiers would often throw chocolate bars to groups of children. Allegedly, because of this, one of the first English phrases learned and used by Japanese children was “give me chocolate!”

Nowadays, the chocolate culture in Japan is booming, although the Japanese are certainly more experimental with the cocoa flavour combinations. Kitkat flavours such as green tea, potato and yuzu have all features in Japanese stores – if you enjoy learning about the unusual and wonderful chocolate types around the world, we unpick some of the wackiest chocolate flavours you need to try here.

person holding a cup of matcha green tea

Just like in the UK, it’s common to gift chocolates as a romantic gesture for Valentine’s Day. However, this is where the chocolate culture differs slightly from us – in Japan, Valentine’s Day is mainly about women gifting chocolates to men, rather than both men and women. 

There are two types of chocolate that a woman can give; one is a ready-made “giri-choco”, which is given to friends and family in a non-romantic way. The other is called “honmei-chocos”, and it is given to love interests. These chocolates tend to be more luxurious and costly than the giri-choco.

However, in recent years women have started to push back against the giri-choco (non romantic) tradition, rejecting the notion that woman have to spend thousands of yen on chocolates for their friends, family and colleagues. Some companies have now taken to banning the practice to prevent females from feeling pressurised to buy their male colleagues chocolate treats.

Rather than buying chocolate for men on February 14, 60% of Japanese women will buy chocolate as a personal indulgence – we can’t say we blame them!

Chocolate culture in Europe

Although we can’t boast that we grow our cocoa beans in England, the UK can be accredited with the creation of the first solid chocolate bar – we take a look at where chocolate was invented in more depth here.

Chocolate culture in Europe is one which we hold dear to our hearts: in 2017 the market value of chocolate sales was nearly £40 billion. Chocolate is regularly incorporated into sweet treats and desserts in the kitchen: think of a smooth French mousse au chocolat, a creamy Italian chocolate gelato, or a dense and rich English steamed chocolate pudding.

We don’t just love to incorporate chocolate into our bakes – in most European countries, our chocolate culture stems from the concept of gifting chocolate at times of celebration and festivities.

During Easter in the UK, most people go on Easter egg hunts, hiding miniature chocolate eggs in the house or around the garden for little ones – or the children at heart – to find. Originally, painted boiled eggs were used; whilst these may have looked prettier, we have to admit that we’re much happier that the swap to chocolate was made.

children hunting for easter eggs at easter

People also snacked on chocolate moulds of the Easter Bunny, and the first edible Easter bunnies appeared in Germany in the early 1800s, made from pastry and sugar. In France, chocolate bells are also consumed to celebrate Easter, symbolising the ringing of the bells which show youngsters that the hunt for Easter eggs can begin.

Of course, no Christmas celebration would be complete without the addition of chocolate – in the UK, our chocolate culture in December goes into overdrive, with Christmas-themed chocolate goodies adorning shelves in shops around the nation.

Even the tradition of advent – which was typically the burning of candles to mark the countdown to Christmas – has had a cocoa makeover, and now advent calendars for most people mean the opening of little cardboard doors to discover chocolate treats inside.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas – or Sinterklass – makes an early appearance, arriving on December 5 to hand out chocolate-covered letters and other sweet treats. In Germany, a gingerbread-like baked good named Lebkuchen is often dipped in chocolate for a more decadent snack.

Chocolate is also incorporated into festive desserts; in Italy, chocolate is enjoyed in a dense and crunchy chocolate nut Christmas cake, dusted with icing sugar.

Chocolate culture in America

Our Western cousins are equally huge chocolate lovers, with a chocolate culture very similar to ours. However, a big difference between UK and US chocolate is the amount of cocoa that has to legally be included to be called chocolate: the US requires only 10% of cocoa solids to be in milk chocolate, whilst in Europe it has to be 25% or higher, and 20% in the UK.

As the cocoa content is lower, the amount of sugar is higher to make the chocolate taste more appealing, which is why American chocolate tends to be much lighter and sweeter compared to European chocolate.

Although this might suit some, at Hotel Chocolat we tend to follow the mantra of more cocoa, less sugar, as we believe that the nuanced and deep notes of the cocoa bean should remain strong, whether you’re enjoying a bar of milk or dark chocolate.

All of our milk chocolate contains a minimum of 40% cocoa solids, and even our white is high in cocoa: we use 36% cocoa butter to achieve a sumptuously smooth texture.

Hotel Chocolat Supermilk batons - milk chocolate

Of course, not all American chocolate is the same – there are plenty of high cocoa, high-quality bars out there. Just watch out for the cheaper stuff if you ever find yourself in a US supermarket; unless you want a ridiculously sweet bar of chocolate, we suggest you steer clear of the stuff.

Chocolate culture on the Ivory Coast

Although our chocolate culture is to simply see it as a sweet and easy treat, cocoa cultivation on the Ivory Coast can lead to heavy exploitation of the farmers who grow it. Despite producing the most cocoa than any other country in the world, according to the Fairtrade International, the median annual income for a cocoa farmer’s household is only USD $2,707, hovering above the extreme poverty level of $2,276. Furthermore, out of 3,000 households, in the Ivory Coast, only 12% earn a living income.

These figures are worrying, especially when we consider that the UK chocolate industry alone is worth £3.96billion, with a predicted 35% increase in sales over the next five years.

But if the chocolate market is so successful, how is it that its farmers are struggling to even put food on their table?

The Cocoa Barometer, an organisation which advocates for change in the cocoa sector, states that one of the reasons for this is the price risk of cocoa: if too many farmers are producing the beans, then its market value drops. The burden of this falls on the farmers, meaning they can only sell their beans for a pittance.

From 2016 to 2017, farmers across the world saw cocoa prices drop by 36% – with such a low income, most families are forced to rely on their children for extra help farming the beans, depriving them of an education.

At Hotel Chocolat, we think it’s crucial to give back to the farmers who make our chocolate culture possible. That’s why we’re committed to an ‘Engaged Ethics’ scheme – we believe our chocolate growers can reap the rewards of growing our beans.

We give a fairer share of the financial rewards from our chocolate back to the farmers, as well as providing them with a guarantee to buy their harvests so that they can have a steady flow of income.

We’ve also got stuck in: rather than just sending them a cheque, we’re attempting to change the farmers’ lives for the better by helping them with improved productivity, so that they can grow more cocoa trees in a more efficient way.

Although chocolate cultures vary around the world, it’s clear that without cocoa farmers, we wouldn’t even be able to have a chocolate culture of our own.