If you were to lay out the ingredients that go into popular Caribbean drinks, your collection might look more like the contents of a nature-loving kid's backpack than a grocery bag. You'd have buckthorn tree bark for mauby, a bittersweet drink that tastes like an extra-vegetal rootbeer with mulling spices; deep magenta Hibiscus flowers for tart sorrel tea; and a handful of various grasses and leaves, which are steeped in hot water to make the ill-named bush tea.
And then, bigger and more questionable than them all, you’d have a brown “stick” that resembles one of two dirty items, depending on whether you’re the person who smiles when the clock hits 4:20 or the one who still laughs at the word poop (if you’re both, congrats on realizing that maturity is overrated).
But it is, obviously and thankfully, neither of those items. Instead, the edible in question is a cocoa stick, a finger-sized log of roasted, ground, and rolled cacao nibs, and it has one main purpose: grating into cocoa tea. Though the Caribbean drink is referred to as a tea, it's really more of a milky hot chocolate, but better: less fatty and creamy, more fragrant with dark cacao nut and bittersweetness, plus some warming spice to remind you where you are.
The hot cocoa is especially popular in St. Lucia, but because Caribbean islands have been growing cacao trees for centuries, people from all islands have been making different versions of the tea for centuries. Some recipes call for the addition of condensed and evaporated milk; others eschew commonly added spices like nutmeg and bay leaf.
With cacao trees growing everywhere from St. Lucia to Jamaica to Grenada, knobbly cacao beans are omnipresent in the islands, and while nearly 70% of the US's five billion dollar cocoa industry comes from West Africa, the Caribbean is applauded for having eight out of the 17 countries recognized as producers of fine cocoa (as opposed to bulk commodity cocoa). When the cacao trees are good, the cocoa tea is good.
Just hold back with the whipped cream and marshmallows. If there’s anything you should add, it’s one of the Caribbean’s other greatest export, rum. With the cacao’s moderate sweetness, richness, and fragrance, it’s the perfect mixer for a pour or two of the good stuff—and any islander knows there’s never a bad time for a little rum.
To buy cocoa sticks, visit simplyn8ture’s Etsy shop, or look for them in the Caribbean islands or in at Caribbean groceries on the mainland; if you can’t find a stick, an equivalent amount of roasted and ground cacao nibs will make an equally delicious drink.