Do you know where your cacao comes from? Cacao is the botanical name of the tree— Theobroma cacao— on which the chocolate fruit is grown. Before it can be turned into chocolate, the fruits must be harvested at peak ripeness. Their seeds are removed for fermenting, drying, roasting, peeling, and grinding into chocolate, a complicated process which requires weeks of work. I’m sweating just thinking about it.
While most of the world’s cacao is grown in Africa, nearly a fifth of it is grown in Asia. That proportion is only expected to continue growing as Africa faces weather crises and further deforestation. Although Asia isn’t missing out on those disasters, the continent as a whole is experiencing a related renaissance in the artisanal chocolate arena. In 2017, China was the chosen stage for the reveal of ruby chocolate, one of the most contentious chocolates currently on the market. The next year, Japan was the test market for those first ruby chocolate products.
Cacao has a surprisingly long history on the Asian content, and the historical baggage to match. The first cacao in Asia was cultivated in the 17th century, well before it was planted anywhere in Africa. Looking at the chocolate scene in Asia today not only reveals a lot about the region’s many cultures, but also about how colonialism has shaped each country, and the people in turn have reshaped or all-out rejected those colonial ideals.
In fact, the English word “cocoa” is believed to be a colonial-era spelling error, taking some of the wind out of the popular cacao vs. cocoa debate. These days, much of the cacao grown in Asia is being replaced with other cash crops, especially rubber and palm trees, which are themselves forces for large-scale deforestation. But there’s another force working to bring Asian cacao to a more self-determinate position: value-added chocolate. Below are seven countries whose relationship with chocolate is evolving to include locally-made products, one bar at a time.
Chocolate in The Philippines
The Philippines was the landing point for cacao in Asia, first planted in the late 1600’s. Spanish colonialists brought high quality cacao plants from their established colony in Mexico, where cacao has a long & ceremonious history. The Spaniards put Catholic friars and priests in charge of their cacao plantations in the Philippines, where it remains an important crop more than three centuries later.
Most local cacao production goes to the manufacture of tableya, a drink base made from ground and pressed cacao, formed into small tablets. This local treat is prepared in boiling water or milk and served as a sort of Philippine hot chocolate, most commonly enjoyed at breakfast. In the Philippines, cacao is more connected to tableya than to chocolate. But in recent years the country has had to import cacao to meet domestic demand, as a combination of factors put Philippine cacao on the path towards decline back in the 1990’s.
As of 2019, the government is halfway through a large administration-backed revitalization of the local cacao industry, focused on adding cacao to existing coconut and durian plantations. Several regional groups are now focused on helping farmers start or join cooperatives which will aid them in proper processing of cacao and give them a better chance to reach a well-paying market. The last several years has also seen the emergence of small-scale chocolate making, particularly in cacao-growing regions. Tree to bar chocolate, in which the maker has control over every step of the chocolate making process, is increasingly common— and delicious.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Auro Chocolate, Malagos Chocolate, and Theo & Philo.
Chocolate in Vietnam
Back in the 1800’s, French colonists took over a huge swath of land which they dubbed “French Indochina.” That territory comprised modern-day Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as well as part of southern China. At that time, similar to their Spanish counterparts in the Philippines, they tried to make Vietnam into a cacao-producing hub. This quest failed. Miserably. In the century-plus which followed, several attempts were made to duplicate those efforts, every one of them failing, even the current one. But despite Vietnamese cacao’s peak nearly a decade ago, a parallel industry has emerged in the country: chocolate.
The movement was really started by the founding of Marou Chocolate in 2011. At the time they were one of very few chocolate brands making their products in the same country as their cacao is grown. Since then the number of Vietnamese chocolate makers has exploded, with almost all of the makers using local cacao. Ironically, the cacao revival in Vietnam was originally led by multinational chocolate manufacturers Mars and Cargill, looking for a reliable source for cacao on mainland Southeast Asia.
In the end, commodity prices weren’t enough to compete with the earnings from other commercial crops, especially considering the work that goes into properly preparing cacao for the market. Now that there are small-scale chocolate makers willing to pay a fair price for local cacao, it’s too late for many farmers. They’ve already chopped down their trees and moved on. But the hunt continues, with some chocolate makers putting months into cultivating the necessary relationships with local producers, and still getting shorted in the end.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Marou Chocolate Makers, Belvie Chocolate, and Stone Hill Chocolate.
Chocolate in Japan
While Japan is too far north to grow cacao of their own, they sure have taken a liking to the stuff. When I think of Japanese chocolate, I think of innovations like cacao sugar, chocolate-soaked berries, and heritage varietals of cane sugar. On the surface these products may not sound very creative, but each of them has sent shockwaves of their own through the chocolate industry, while also delighting consumers around the world.
Japan is a huge consumer and maker of chocolate both craft and industrial. Local giant Meiji Confections has majority market share, as well as a spot as one of the world’s 10 largest chocolate manufacturers. Just a few years ago they took advantage of how popular small-batch chocolate has become in Japan and launched their own bean to bar chocolate line. Yet the thing that’s really solidifying Japan’s place in the world of chocolate is their large investment in cacao industries of Southeast Asian countries, in particular Vietnam and Indonesia.
Ironically it was just 70 years ago that Japan was equally interested in this region, having invaded most of East and Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Japanese records have shown that during the 50 years they colonized Taiwan, there was at least one company cultivating cacao on the island. While that cacao was destroyed, the Taiwanese cacao industry has recently come back to life, thanks in some small way to the Japanese public’s renewed interest.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Cacaoken, Green Bean to Bar, and Dandelion Chocolate Japan.
Chocolate in Taiwan
Around 100 years ago, Japanese colonists planted cacao on Taiwan, hoping to turn the island into the model agricultural colony. Even though that particular cacao was destroyed after the Japanese were defeated in WWII, there were several attempts to cultivate cacao on Taiwan afterwards. Over the past several years, one of those attempts has finally stuck. These days Taiwan is the northernmost cacao growing region in the world, with some cacao plantations less than an hour outside of the island’s many cities. While it’s very expensive to farm on Taiwan, locals have been drawn to cacao thanks to the appeal of making their own chocolate from the cacao tree to the final bar.
The Taiwanese government is even advocating the planting of cacao on existing farms, especially as a replacement for the harmful but immensely popular betel nut tree. Governmental organizations are hopeful that once farmers see the additional income from cacao, they’ll be inclined to plant more cacao rather than more betel, also known as the areca palm. The interest in healthful eating above all has swept East Asia over the last decade or so, and extends to the region’s young chocolate industry.
Like most of Asia, Taiwan’s chocolate options were limited until the local craft chocolate scene began making noise. For those lucky enough to get their hands on some, chocolate made with cacao from Taiwanese farms has become a healthy indulgence, while roasted cacao beans are treated like a daily supplement. With so many small-batch chocolate makers popping up, competition has gotten a bit fierce, but for us consumers this just means more ways to indulge.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Chomeet Chocolate, FuWan Chocolate, and Choose Chiu’s.
Chocolate in India
India is a large country with huge potential for growing and consuming cacao, especially as the population continues to increase in overall wealth. Yet there’s still very little cacao coming out of the country as either beans or finished products, though both are on the rise. The problem, as in most of Asia, is low prices and lack of farmer education. Cacao was introduced to southern India during the British colonial period, and largely continues to be grown as merely additional income.
But the amount of cacao produced in India is still not enough to meet domestic demand for chocolate and other cocoa products. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, are starting to take it upon themselves to increase their country’s cacao production, and with it, farmers’ incomes. Dozens of small-batch chocolate makers have already appeared in India over the last several years, despite their limited options for local cacao. Yet to me what’s been the most striking about the Indian chocolate revolution is the blending of flavors.
Unlike in North America or Europe, the concept of terrior and the taste of place isn’t nearly as interesting to Indian consumers. They want to see their childhood favorites brought to life, in the new and unusual medium of chocolate. From Mango Lassi or Candied Gondhoraj to Jackfruit & Black Pepper, Indian chocolate makers have brought some striking flavors to life across the country. With Indian cacao cultivation on the rise, hopefully soon there will be more local cacao farmers taking chocolate making into their own hands.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Mason & Co.Chocolate, Naviluna Artisan Chocolate, and Chitra’m Craft Chocolate.
Chocolate in Malaysia
Since its meteoric rise in the 1980’s, Malaysia’s cacao growing industry has tapered off quite a bit. In place of growing cacao, Malaysia has become a center for processing cacao and researching its many facets. Much of the cacao currently grown in Southeast Asia was studied and approved in a Malaysian agricultural center before being sent to its new home. In parallel, you’ve surely eaten something in your lifetime which contains cocoa powder or cocoa butter pressed in Malaysia. As cacao has become a more popular crop across Asia, the continent’s many farms have each run into different pests and diseases, and often turn to the Malay peninsula for answers.
The local government is very supportive of the cacao industry, even though the country’s involvement has largely turned towards processing & selling cacao derivatives to international markets. Cacao farms on mainland Malaysia have largely disappeared. The main growing areas are on Borneo, an island shared with Indonesia and Brunei, where some farmers and farmer cooperatives are beginning to turn towards not just processing into materials for chocolate, but making the finished chocolate themselves. With so many different growing regions and unique culinary traditions, it will be exciting to see what chocolatey innovations will come out of Malaysia next.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Bonaterra Chocolate, Chocolate Concierge, and Benn’s Ethicoa.
Chocolate in Indonesia
If you’ve learned a bit about cacao, you’ve probably heard that most of the world’s cacao supply comes from just two African countries: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. But what you may not realize is that Indonesia is the world’s third-largest cacao exporter, much of it heading to neighboring Malaysia for immediate processing. The cacao industry in Indonesia is quite young, as well, only beginning in earnest in the 1980’s. But over the last three decades, the country has catapulted to the top of Asian cocoa production, most of that grown on smallholder farms. That means that the cacao is largely grown on farms smaller than 1 hectare, as opposed to large monoculture farms, which is common with commercial crops like rubber or palm.
But while there are some farmers cooperatives and direct partnerships with chocolate makers, most Indonesian cacao is still bought at very low prices. There’s little local processing infrastructure, so cacao farmers have no choice but to sell to whomever is willing to buy. Some local chocolate makers have appeared on the scene, but not nearly as many as in Vietnam or India. If this doesn’t change soon, then Indonesian farmers might just switch to higher-earning crops over the next couple of decades. Only time will tell.
Look for Local Chocolate Makers: Pipiltin Chocolate, Krakakoa Chocolate, and Pod Chocolate.
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Thank you to Max Gandy aka Dame Cacao for this superbly informative post about Chocolate in Asia. Images copyright to Max Gandy, published with permission.
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!44 Comments to "Asia | The Best Kept Secret in Chocolate"
Fascinating article, we’ve had Philippines chocolate but never realised there was so much Asian production.
(Author here) Thank you! The Philippines makes some delicious chocolate, that’s for sure, but it’s just one piece of the very large & growing puzzle that makes up Asian chocolate. 🙂
Great post. I went to Marou in Vietnam and overheard many tourists complaining how expensive it was. Sigh. One day people will accept that chocolate is as luxury as a Gucci handbag. More so even.
Absolutely. They don’t like the idea of child labour but still buy the cheap crap that is made on those children’s backs.
Thank you for your kind words, Urvashi! Yes, Marou is a good example of people making value-added chocolate at origin, and employing over 100 local Vietnamese. Yet I suppose $4USD for some of the best chocolate money can buy is too much to ask of some people used to spending $1USD on a bar with less than a quarter the cocoa content and none of the quality! One day, indeed…
Great post. Thanks! I prefer a indonesian chocolate. 😀
Indonesia has some great stuff, that’s for sure.
I’ve not tried Indonesian so shall look out for some.
I am a total chocaholic and I am now inspired to take a chocolate asian tour. I have not tasted any of the asian chocolates and would definitely want to try them all to compare them and see which ones I prefer. I wonder if they will start producing some for export and if it will become easily available in the USA.
Very glad to inspire further interest in chocolate! There are now a fair number of Asian chocolate makers who export to the US. You can check out some larger sites like Bar & Cocoa or Caputo’s and do some exploring. Maybe it will help you plan where to go on your trip.~
As Max has said, you can definitely find quality Asian chocolate in the US, in specialist chocolate shops, look for those that focus on bean to bar chocolate.
If I really needed another reason to travel to Asia, chocolate would definitely be it! Great to know that the Philippines government is helping to revitalize the cacao industry. So sad to read that the chocolate industry has faded in Vietnam because they could not get the price they needed to be sustained. And we are sorry we missed trying more chocolate in Japan. Looks like we need to put Malaysia on our travels. And check out the cacao industry when we are there. My chocoholic hubby thanks you for this blog post!
Author here, and you’re very welcome, Linda! Many governments are working to support their agriculture industry, but unfortunately some of them are thinking too short-term. It’d be great to add the new chocolate museum just outside of Kuala Lumpur to that list. Fantastic addition to the Asian chocolate scene, and a neat way to see some cacao in action (in a country of origin)!
Wow that’s some bean to bar story unveiled for Asia. Infact while I was in Malaysia , i could see a huge market for chocolates and had bought in variety .. Never knew that Indonesia happens to be a third largest producer of cacao .. very well written . I got some light about the cacao industry in Asia.
I’m so glad to share new information about chocolate, and to hear that you explored some Malaysian chocolate while there! I hope you can find some great chocolate wherever you find yourself next.~
I am not a great a fan of chocolate but this post surely made my tastebuds want some. I was not aware about the history and complexity of something we all take for granted and just open a wrapper and gobble it. I did not know there was cocoa in INDIA. The growing eastern markets surely are racing the bar. I would love to try some of the Japanese local treats. Thanks for sharing the Asian chocolate revolution.
Much of what we all ate growing up was merely chocolate-flavored rather than real chocolate! I hope you’ll give some quality chocolate a chance the next time you find yourself at a bean to bar shop, in India or elsewhere. I’m always glad to inspire some tastebud wanderlust!
As Max says, high quality chocolate is a world away from the cheap confectionery which uses the cheapest of cocoa, and substitutes cocoa butter for vegetable fats. Great chocolate is a revelation. Don’t fall for the marketing that suggests that if a chocolate is 70% cocoa content, that it must be good, that simply defines how dark it is, but means nothing given that the cocoa itself varies so much from good to bad.
Interesting round up! I had not idea Taiwan produced chocolate…
Taiwan produces some lovely chocolate! I hope you can try it one day.~
I had some great Taiwanese chocolate at the Chocolate Show in London a few years ago!
Good to know that Cacao is the botanical name of the tree— Theobroma cacao which bears the chocolate fruit. I never knew that before converting into chocolate, the fruits must be harvested at peak ripeness. I would love to check some flavors of far eastern chocolates as they look unique. It is interesting to know that before 100 years ago, Japanese colonists planted cacao on Taiwan.
Yes indeed, Yukti! The tale of cacao across Asia is hundreds of year long and holds many stories.Even just making chocolate the beans will go through many hands ! I hope soon you can try some unique bars made by those hands.
The fruits are such strange looking things, the pods can be different colours when ripe. When ripe, they are cut open and the fruit-covered beans removed, and they let them ferment in the fruit-coating before they dry and then roast the beans. It’s fascinating to see the process for real and of course you can taste the fruit itself, which does not taste chocolatey in case you were wondering!
Well, I wonder if I’ve ever had real chocolate or just some flavoured concoction. It’s interesting that cacao farming hasn’t turned into a big industry in Asia yet. I assume the financial incentives aren’t there? I for one, hope chocolate production never goes out of business!
It can be hard to tell if you’ve never had real chocolate, whether everything you had before it was merely a facsimile! But yes, it’s a lack of financial incentives on the one hand, and global climate change on the other. One devastated harvest can ruin a farm and throw a whole family into poverty. Hopefully we can work towards life-changing climate change legislation around the world in the coming year and each one after that.
Really good chocolate is revelation when you’ve mostly had only confectionery style chocolate. I hope you find and try some of the best!
Well, I am a die-hard chocolate lover, but had never given a thought about these aspects of chocolate production or cacao cultivation. It is a revelation to me that so much quantity of cacao is grown in Asia as well and Indonesia is world’s third largest exporter of cacao!!
In India, there are cacao plantations here and there and as you have rightly pointed out, they are not even sufficient. Many of the hill stations like Darjeeling, Ooty, Kodaikanal have indigenous chocolate manufacturers and they produce different varieties of chocolates. I hope chocolate plantation is taken more seriously in India and Asia in future.
Yes, I’ll be visiting some of the cacao-growing regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the next couple of months, and I look forward to seeing how they now compare to other parts of Asia. Rubber has been a huge factor in the devastation of Indian cacao, but lots of domestic & international interest is bringing it back! Hopefully this will bring huge positive changes for the Indian chocolate market in coming years (ones we can all benefit from).
It’s such a shame that though being an Asian I never knew that Asia is a major producer of cacao. I am headed to Vietnam in 2020 and would certainly indulge in some chocolate exploration. It is so interesting to know the local chocolate makers of all these Asian countries.
Yes, and three from each country was hard to choose! There are so many talented and creative chocolate makers across Asia. I hope you can make a visit to Marou in Hanoi or Saigon, and maybe another maker or two in other cities. Enjoy Vietnam, Pooja!
Another going to Vietnam next year, will be seeking out chocolate, as I always do!
What an insightful post! I did not know that a fifth of the world’s chocolate actually grows in Asia! I didn’t quite try out the artisanal chocolates in Japan, I didn’t think they were a big deal or special to try. However, I will be in Vietnam soon and reading this post has made me realise that maybe I should. Asia has always done great with their foods, seems like their chocolates are world-class too!
It’s a huge amount isn’t it but Asia has some countries that really have the right climate and terrain. We are also visiting Vietnam soon and I want to visit Marou as I have been enjoying their chocolate for a few years now.
Kavey’s certainly right about the climate & terrain! It’s crazy how much of our cocoa comes from places we thought were far away, but could be much closer than we expected. Time to look for some chocolate made in your own backyard! But Marou’s pretty great, too. 😉
Wow! This post is very in depth and has got me wondering if I ever had proper proper chocolate and not some chemical rubbish (I am from the UK). Think I am going to need to check out this chocolate when I get to Asia next time round. I sure do love my chocolate.
You may have had a taste here or there, but even in the UK most chocolate is stuffed full of sugar! Take a look at Tokyo, Hanoi, or Bangkok for some great options next time you’re in Asia. 🙂
I love sweets, most of all, chocolate. Reading this post, I immediately took out a bar of chocolate 🙂 Fascinating article, many interesting facts that I did not know before. Never knew that Indonesia happens to be the third-largest producer of cacao and didn’t know that Taiwan produced chocolate, too. Well written! I want to try all the chocolates you present. Next time when I go on a travel to Asia, I will take the chocolate trail! Is seems an excellent idea for a trip.
Ooooh, lucky you to have chocolate so close by! I hope it was a good bar, and that some of these shops make it on your itinerary next time you’re planning a trip. 🙂
As a chocoholic, I 100% endorse this post! I never knew about the chocolate they had in Asia, and I’m very intrigued. I remember trying the chocolate in the Philippines during a trip, and it was delicious. They use it also in a porridge called Champorado, which is delicious. I’d also love to try the Japanese varieties.
Mmmmm yes, champorado is delicious! Very chocolatey. It’s worth it to try chocolate from a few different countries if you head to Japan, as they have a good number of specialty shops.
This is a great post. And an enlightening one for me since I was not much aware of Asia’s chocolate connections. So good to see that I can look out for local brands when I am traveling in Asia. I am not much of a chocolate lover but I prefer to have artisanal ones when I get a chance.
Wow…this is enriching. I didn’t have any idea about it. I am so glad that I have come across this post. I am not even aware a country like Philippines was the landing point for cacao in Asia. You have covered everything so beautifully. Though I am not a big fan of chocolate, but it’s great to know the other aspects of chocolate production & cultivation. Great content
Great post!! Honestly, I didn’t know that Asain had coco plants too, I always thought it was an African thing. As someone who loves chocolate, this is pretty exciting to learn. I remember trying some chocolates while I was in Japan and also there odd flavors kit kats. I would love to try out some other Asian chocolates.