I heard the word tablea— also spelled tableya— so many times over my first couple of weeks in the Philippines, back in early 2017. I even bought some honey tablea in Bohol a couple of years ago. Then again, when I went back in to research Philippine cacao culture, I really got interested: what IS tablea?
And where’s all the Filipino chocolate?!
Table of Contents
What Is Tablea, Or “Tableya?”
Put simply, tablea is a ball of ground-up cacao beans, usually heated and combined with water to make a traditional Filipino chocolate drink called sikwate. Many people cite that the name tablea (or tableya) refers to the Spanish word for “tablet,” a reference to the food’s shape. But the name may also come from the Spanish word tablear, meaning rolling and dividing, an allusion to the way in which the balls are formed.
In researching this article, I’ve learned that when a Filipino’s chocolate craving hits, it’s usually not for a bar of chocolate, but for a steaming cup of breakfast tablea. A local cacao farmer in Davao told me that Filipinos usually spell with their ears, which would explain the variations in spelling.
Whichever word you choose is a matter of preference, just like how you choose to prepare your tablea.
How Is Tablea Made?
Cacao beans are the agricultural product used to make chocolate.
To make chocolate, the beans are harvested, fermented, and dried, and then they’re roasted, peeled, and ground into a smooth cacao mass. The purest chocolate is cacao mass, plus sugar. But to make traditional tablea, you simply grind the cacao beans a little less, and then form the mass into balls to store for later use (instead of adding sugar and refining further).
For those who grew up with expiration dates on everything including hot chocolate, you may be wondering, does tablea expire? The answer is no. The higher percentage of fat means that it your tablea could have some cocoa butter rising to the surface and making it appear grey and moldy, but rest assured that it’s still fine to consume. In fact, most tablea will start to look like this at some point, since it’s not traditionally tempered (meaning that the food’s fat structure is stabilized). So old tablea should be just fine to eat, as long as it still tastes good.
Tablea is different from a hot chocolate mix because it contains more natural fat. To make the cocoa powder used as the base in most hot chocolates, companies take the aforementioned cacao mass and press out most of the fat, to use in cosmetics and other industries. Then they alkalize or “dutch” it to make it dissolve better in water and have a more uniform flavor. So tablea is basically full-fat hot chocolate base, with your own choice of how much sugar and/or milk to add.
Unfortunately, many Filipino farmers have historically not fermented their cacao, and most still don’t. This means that the flavor of their tablea is often bland, or even worse, acidic and earthy without much chocolaty flavor at all. The process of fermentation is crucial in both chocolate making and tablea production, because it’s one of the two most important steps for flavor production within the cacao beans themselves. So make sure your tablea says it was produced with fermented cacao, especially if you plan to mix it with milk and sugar.
History Of Tablea
Theobroma cacao is the tree from whose fruit chocolate is made. At the time of Spanish Colonization, the tree was being grown in both Central America and northern South America, and its seeds were prized by many native peoples. In turn, the Spanish found value in it, as well, bringing seeds to try and cultivate in each of their colonies, including the Philippines.
At the time, cacao was only consumed in the form of a beverage, as the Aztec & other native peoples of Mexico were consuming it. So when the Spanish colonizers successfully cultivated cacao on the Philippines, that’s the only way it was being consumed: as a drink. But this wasn’t a drink for just anybody; the Spanish cacao farms were watched over by priests, and those same priests had a huge say in who could consume it.
When you visited one of these cacao plantations, if you were deemed worthy enough then you were served a cup of tsokolate, the Filipino word for “chocolate.” But within the world of tsokolates, there were two types: Tsokolate Eh and Tsokolate Ah. Filipino Tsokolate Eh was “espresso” chocolate, meaning the most concentrated form of the beverage, reserved only for the most worthy of visitors. While Filipino Tsokolate Ah was chocolate “aguado,” or “watered down.” It was a lighter version of the beverage, and serving it meant that you respected the person’s position, but not that much.
For centuries this traditional Filipino hot chocolate has been and is still the most popular way to consume cacao throughout the Philippines, especially as it’s gone from a colonizer’s beverage to the drink of the people.
Domestic Consumption of Tablea
Similar to the chocolate caliente in Baracoa, Cuba, and many other part of Latin America, Filipino hot chocolate is usually served with breakfast. If you don’t add much sugar or milk, it’s a rather bitter and mild-flavored beverage, much like coffee. These days, mothers and grandmothers are generally in charge of making & serving the morning sikwate. Even though its consumed across the country, and even caused a cacao deficit in the Philippines in recent years, it’s not really something you’d order in a cafe.
Tableya is and has always been a food made and consumed in the home, with all of the preparations that entails. This includes other forms in which tableya is consumed, like in the traditional Filipino dish of champorado.
For those who still make tablea at home, if they don’t have a cacao tree in their yard, they buy cacao beans from a local market. Then they bring those beans home and roast them over a fire, peel off each individual shell, and grind at all up in a blender. It’s a rather arduous process, so most people opt to buy tablea from the supermarket these days, though more & more artisanal tablea makers are popping up now (even as far away as Belgium).
Consumption of the aforementioned tsokolate drinks has also changed over time, as eating chocolate and chocolate beverages have become distinct foods with shared roots. In modern times, tsokolate is the Filipino word for “chocolate,” while sikwate is the Filipino word for the beverage made with tableya (often called “Filipino hot chocolate”).
You can also find international hot chocolate mixes, like Swiss Miss, in some Filipino supermarkets. So many Filipinos don’t even associate tablea and sikwate with the world of pre-packaged hot cocoa mixes and sugary chocolate bars I grew up on in the US. But this doesn’t mean that tablea has dodged the issue of adulterated quality. Most of the tablea brands I found in the supermarkets in Davao City contained something other than cacao, be it corn starch or wheat germ or something else.
This means that even though Filipino tableya is just as popular as ever, those who opt to buy from the supermarket may not be getting the same quality as they might have been a few decades ago. Additionally, over the years, it’s become increasingly popular to prepare your sikwate with milk instead of water, and even to sweeten it further with condensed milk. This is most popular amongst younger generations, but it’s only becoming more widespread.
Where To Buy Tsokolate Tablea
If you’re in the Philippines, buying tablea is as simple as going to your local supermarket and asking where the tablea section is. But be sure to read the packaging before buying, as “pure” and “natural” are just marketing words; the important information is on the back, in the ingredients list.
Yet just as easy, if not easier, is to order tableya online, preferably from someone making tableya from well-fermented and -dried cacao that they grow themselves. Davao City, in the island region of Mindanao, is famous for growing much of the country’s cacao. There are over a dozen tablea brands based in Davao alone, and you can see some of them here.
Unfortunately, very few companies have the means or demand to export their tablea, in part due to the aforementioned & ongoing cacao deficit in the Philippines. So if you’re located outside of the Philippines, but want to buy tableya online to prepare at home, I’d recommend checking out Cacao Culture Farms, based in Davao. They now ship internationally, though don’t forget about the year-round warm weather shipping fees. Askinosie Chocolate, out of Springfield, MO, USA, also has a tableya brand that may be available internationally.
How To Prepare Tablea
Preparing tableya into sikwate is very similar to preparing hot chocolate from a cocoa powder. You heat up your liquid of choice, add in your tableya or cocoa powder, and mix until combined. But for more step-by-step instructions, check out the sikwate recipe below.
Traditional Tablea Recipe (Sikwate)
Traditionally, in a sikwate recipe you’ll see just tableya and water, as milk is a relatively new addition to the Philippine palate.
- 1 piece of tableya (about 1oz./28g)
- 1 cup of water (for a sweeter, but less traditional version, use whole milk)
- optional: sweetened condensed milk
- optional: sugar (traditionally muscovado or maybe coconut sugar)
- copper pot or batirol (also spelled baterol, chocolatera)
- metal fork
- stove top
- Batidor (also called a molinillo; alternatives are a whisk or an immersion blender, if you want to get really fancy)
- ceramic cup
To prepare sikwate, first put the water in the pot and bring to a boil. Drop in the tableya and wait ten seconds for it to soften before breaking it up with the fork. Turn off the heat. Then begin twisting the batirol or whisk by rubbing it between your hands for 1-2 minutes, distributing the tableya particles as evenly throughout the mixture as possible. If you want to add milk or sugar of any kind, do this now; otherwise, wait one minute before pouring your sikwate into your cup and giving it a taste. This makes one serving.
Bonus: tableya is vegan, since it’s made of 100% cacao, and you can choose what type of sweetener and creamer to add, if any. Some people also like adding espresso or liquor or even some spices for a variation on the traditional type.
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