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?!
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 bean itself. 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.
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 drink").
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 Philippine tablea 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 cacao 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.
This distributes 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 spices for a variation on the traditional type.
Chocolate Tablea FAQ
Does tablea have sugar? No. Therefore tablea is keto friendly and low carb, as it should only be made of cacao beans. But tableya is still very high in calories, and as such its intake should be moderated, especially if prepared with milk and sugar. On the other hand, traditionally-prepared tableya with only water or coconut milk is a great source of healthy fats and antioxidants, and just one cup a day is perfectly good for you.
Once the cacao has been harvested & processed, roast the beans until some beans have popped but before they begin to burn. Once cooled, peel off the beans' husks and put your cocoa beans into a very high-speed blender. If you have a mortar and pestle, that also works. Once the beans turn liquid, pour that liquid into a bowl to slightly cool or pour directly into molds. Voila! Tableya.
Tablea in English is technically just tablea. We'd also call the substance a roughly-ground chocolate liquor or even cacao paste. However, if you're asking what is the meaning of tableya, in English, then the word itself is believed to have come from the Spanish word for 'tablet,' as the balls of tableya resemble tablets.
Though both made from cacao, cocoa powder is like a super-low fat tableya, so you can't always substitute one for the other. To turn tablea to cocoa powder you'd need to liquefy the tablea in a very high speed blender, and then put the mass into a mesh bag for the cocoa butter to drip off. After the de-fatted mass cooled, it would need to be carefully powdered and kept in a cool space. Best to just buy cocoa powder, unless you have a way to make up for the extra fat from the cocoa butter.
Yes! If it's smoothly-enough ground, you can use it in place of baking chocolate/100% chocolate in recipes for brownies, cakes, cookies, and the like.
There are plenty of tablea recipes out there, but not many which tell you what to do with it once you've got it! My favorite uses for tableya, beyond the traditional sikwate, are in mole chicken sauce, champorado, and my grandma's chocolate frosting. If you're not sure how to use tablea up, try searching for recipes using baking chocolate.
Since the shelf life of tableya is literally years, it's important to store the cacao tablets in an air-tight container so as to not lose its fragrance & flavor. Tablea's shelf life can be extended by keeping it in a cool, dark spot where it won't develop bloom.
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