Cocoa is the dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree from which chocolate is made. "Cocoa" can often also refer to cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids.
A cocoa pod has a rough leathery rind about 3 cm thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod). It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp called 'baba de cacao' in South America, enclosing 30 to 50 large almond-like seeds (beans) that are fairly soft and pinkish or purplish in color.
The cacao tree may have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America where today, examples of wild cacao still can be found. However, it may have had a larger range in the past, evidence for which may be obscured because of its cultivation in these areas long before, as well as after, the Spanish arrived.
There is a larger sub-species growing in the delta of the Ganges in South & Southeast Asia. It may have been introduced into Central America by the ancient Mayas, and cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs. It was a common currency throughout MesoAmerica and the Caribbean before the Spanish conquests.
Cacao bushes will grow in a very limited geographical zone, of approximately 10 degrees to the north and south of the Equator. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.
Cocoa was an important commodity in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés relate that when Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth.
No fewer than 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and 2000 more for nobles of his court.
Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards and became a popular beverage by the mid 1500s. They also introduced the cacao bush into the West Indies and the Philippines.
The cacao plant was first given its botanical name by Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linné (1707-1778), who called it "Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao".