From India to Malaysia, these are some of Asia’s most distinctive and delicious chocolate makers
The Swiss are known for their chocolate. The Belgians, too. And the French boast some of the world’s best chocolatiers. But the beans from which such bars and bonbons originate does not grow in any of these places, but rather far to the west, the south and, increasingly, the east.
Native to central America, the cocoa, or cacao, bean, has its roots in Mexico. And when it was first brought to Europe in the sixteenth century by the Spanish it was enjoyed as a drink, mixed originally with chilli in accordance with Mexican custom. Later, it was flavoured with vanilla and other sweet spices such as cinnamon. Italy embraced the chocolate drink next and it spread through northern Europe, adopted by the wealthy for its purported medicinal and therapeutic qualities and even aphrodisiac effect.
The chocolate bar came later––in the mid 19th century––attributed to Joseph Fry who combined cocoa powder and sugar in a paste that was pressed into a bar. Such bars are now somewhat ubiquitous, though the quality ranges from low grade examples where the percentage of actual cacao is often less than a third, to artisanal examples produced by hand, many of which are coming out of Asia.
Indonesia is the third largest producer of cocoa beans in the world, and while for many of Asia’s other nations chocolate production is a nascent industry, particularly as domestic demand has to date been small, there is growing interest, as the increasing number of premium producers attests to. The proximity of chocolate makers to cocoa bean growers allows for quality control, which is also contributing to the renown of Asia’s rising chocolate scene. Local chocolatiers can source the finest beans, allowing for the production of award-winning chocolate from the region.
Here, Tatler Dining highlights the brands behind Asia’s most exciting and creative chocolates––the bars and bonbons that evoke the flavours of the place they are made, express the terroir of local beans and, in many cases, are contributing to a more sustainable cocoa farming industry in the region.
Do you know where your chocolate comes from? Chocolate Concierge knows the origins of its products well, right down to the date and location of the cocoa beans used. Established in 2015 by Ong Ning-Geng, the company prides itself on high quality, sustainably produced Malaysian single origin chocolate. Chocolate Concierge partners with three indigenous tribes in the growing and harvesting of its cocoa beans. Cocoa pods from its Hulu Gali estate are protected from pests by specially-bred black ants, which serve as natural bio-control. Chocolate Concierge produces seasonal bonbons, too, with unique local flavours including onde onde, sweet laksa and durian. Also try their chocolate bars, brittles and barks: many of their products may begin with a ‘B’, but they all score a grade 'A' for taste.
—Terence Toh, Editor, Tatler Dining Malaysia
Around since 1973, Benns Ethicoa––a portmanteau of ‘ethical’ and ‘cocoa’––is trying to upend misconceptions about chocolate being a naughty snack. On the contrary, high quality cacao can be quite nutritious, asserts executive director Wilfred Ng. One hundred per cent natural, vegan and gluten-free, Benns Ethocia’s products run the gamut from chocolate bars to cacao tea; the former are named after the farms or villages in Asia where the beans were grown—a tip of the hat to terroir––with bars including Calinan, made with cacao from the Philippines; Anaimalai, from India; Sungai Ruan and Panchor, both from Malaysia; Lampang, from Thailand; and Vung Tao, from Vietnam. Each bar boasts a vastly different taste profile. And then there are Benns Ethicoa’s artisanal bonbons, which combine distinctive chocolate with both classic fillings and a range of local flavours, such as bandung, cendol, teh tarik and pandan gula melaka.
—Samantha Sowerby, former Editor, Tatler Dining Malaysia
Established in 2018 by Swiss-Israeli husband-and-wife team Amit Oz and Céline Herren, this homegrown Hong Kong chocolate brand has come a long way since the couple were melting chocolate bars in their tiny Sai Ying Pun apartment. Conspiracy Chocolate is now one of the city’s most popular artisanal labels, and with the licensed factory now based in a spacious Wong Chuk Hang warehouse, their product line is continuing to expand with new flavours and seasonal lines to look forward to.
Befitting the couple’s background, many of their signature chocolates are made using Swiss technique and incorporating spices and herbs commonly found in Mediterranean cuisine; over the years, Conspiracy has found inspiration in the waxing and waning flavour trends that have flowed through the city. On the current line-up are Asian-inflected bars flavoured with genmaicha or Sichuan peppercorn, and the signature Blossom bar is a blend of osmanthus, rose petals and pink peppercorns. A CBD-infused bar has also joined the collection, offering about 100mg of CBD isolate in the 75 per cent chocolate. As for sourcing, the duo buy their cacao beans direct from a single farm in Vietnam’s Dak Lak province—preferred for their subtle notes of toffee, cherry and spices—and process them in Hong Kong for a truly bean-to-bar product.
Opened in 2017 as one of the few—if not only—bean-to-bar chocolatiers in Hong Kong, Hakawa Chocolate has continued to ply its trade quietly in a quaint little store at the end of Gough Street in Central. Co-founders Sally Kwok and Mandy Wong source their cacao from Sri Lanka, Peru and Ecuador, and set to work at their tiny workshop infusing local ingredients and flavourings to arrive at their uniquely handcrafted Hong Kong chocolate bars and drinking chocolate. Signature flavours include Sichuan pepper, goji and osmanthus, rose and pistachio, and Himalayan salt. The pair are always inspired by the seasons and occasions, often experimenting with ingredients they come across or are intrigued by; in the past, they’ve partnered with other local independent purveyors to create unique chocolate products, such as candied ginger chocolate for Mother’s Day. Their chocolate-covered nuts and vegan drinking chocolate are also unmissable.
—Charmaine Mok, Content Director, Hong Kong, Tatler Dining
French-Latin American fine dining destination Mono is known for many things, among them a commitment to making the finest chocolate in-house. This extends to sourcing fresh cacao pods from Ecuador, which are then processed entirely by hand by the kitchen team, from fermenting, drying and roasting, all the way to winnowing, grinding and tempering. The final product is a bijou selection of bonbons available in three flavours. These include dulce de leche, a traditional Argentinean jam made with full cream milk and Tahitian vanilla; rum chocolates made with sustainable smoked Flor de Caña rum from Nicaragua; and chocolate truffles with a ganache that's infused with Argentinian mate tea leaves.
See also: 5 Kaya Brands With High Quality
A self-described bean-to-bar chocolatier, Chocobien sources its single-origin cacao beans directly from farms in Bali, Ecuador, Madagascar, Peru and Venezuela. The beans are then processed along with other ingredients like organic cane sugar and organic sweetener to produce one of five collections: the health-oriented Fitcho that is sugar-free, low in calories and fat, and high in protein and dietary fibres; Chocobien, which uses rare heirloom cacao beans; CBD chocolate; the luxury Kusa aged chocolate series; and creative chocolate bars that might use anything from rye sourdough and Sichuan pepper, to soy sauce and even shrimp.
—Gavin Yeung, Digital Dining Editor, Hong Kong
Auro Chocolate is a Philippine social enterprise that has successfully taken its operations global and garnered much deserved attention and accolades for its delicious bean-to-bar chocolate. Founded by Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go, sustainably farmed, single-origin cacao beans are used for Auro’s chocolate, which is currently supplied to companies in 33 countries worldwide.
"The Philippines has had cacao for over 300 years. We also have a rich tradition of consuming chocolate. Yet, only within the past ten years have we seen quality chocolate brands come up,” says Ocampo. Aside from creating beautifully branded and tasty chocolate treats, Auro is all about giving back. “The DNA of our company is about people. We seek out collaborations with those who share the same values with us. We want to help farmers, increase livelihood opportunities and change the conversation. Uplifting the Philippines is what is most important to us,” he adds.
The multi awarded, internationally recognised Malagos chocolate is dedicated to highlighting Davao as a chocolate capital. Malagos also strongly advocates for sustainable farming practices. Founded by the Puentespina family, who have been in agriculture for five decades, husband and wife Roberto and Charita Charina fell in love with chocolate and cacao farming in 2003 and made it their mission to reinvigorate the Philippines’ cacao industry, which had suffered a big blow during the 1980s.
"We need to step up. We must put more value into our raw materials. This way we can employ and empower more people, especially the farmers," says Charita. Accolades have come pouring in since Malagos was founded, and the company continues to reach new heights, recently adding cocoa liquor to its product offering.
—Isabel Martel Francisco, Editor, Tatler Dining and Gen T
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Fossa Chocolate is Singapore's first bean-to-bar chocolate company, and this means the makers go the extra mile to craft their chocolates from scratch. The process starts with raw cacao beans (sustainably sourced from countries including Malaysia, Ecuador, Tanzania and the Philippines), which go through roasting, winnowing, refining and conching to transform them into delectable chocolate bars without any cocoa substitutes or other additives. Fossa’s bestsellers include the fruity and nutty Finca La Rioja 70%, crafted using a rare cacao from the Finca La Rioja estate in Cacahoatán, Mexico, as well as the smooth and creamy Harana 64% Dark Milk, made from a single varietal cacao from three estates in Davao, Philippines.
Established in 2014, homegrown artisan chocolatier Anjalichocolat is famed for its classic and Singapore-inspired chocolate confections. It was founded by banker-turned-chocolatier Anjali Gupta, who spent four years “visiting every chocolate store I could get to and tasting lots of chocolate” to craft the most decadent chocolates. Her search led her to discover the Belgian couverture, which she uses in all her confections due to its “smooth texture, creamy mouthfeel and great chocolate taste”. Her offerings include the classic bonbons and chocolate truffles, but her love for creating new flavours has led her to launch the From Singapore Lah collection. “This collection was designed to appeal to an international audience, while incorporating ingredients commonly found in the Singapore food scene,” she explains. A gift box includes creations such as lemongrass coconut, teh tarik (milk tea), Chinese five spice and kaya toast.
—Dudi Aureus, Senior Editor, Tatler Dining
Yu Hsuan Cheng founded speciality chocolate store Yu Chocolatier in Taipei in 2015, after studying French pastry making at L'École Ferrandi Paris, and undertaking internships at three-Michelin-starred restaurant Pavillon Ledoyen and chocolatier Jacques Génin. He went on to become the first brand from Taiwan to win at the World Chocolate Competition the following year, lauded for his products that combine French chocolate-making techniques with ingredients that highlight Taiwan's terroir. Since he established Yu Chocolatier, he has focused on bringing more local flavours of Taiwan into his chocolate creations, and has also become a leader in a trend for fine chocolate in Taiwan.
The International Chocolate Awards 2020-2021 saw Taiwan's Q sweet chocolate brand take home several awards, including a gold medal for its Passion Fruit and Pink Pepper bar. It was quite the haul for the brand's founder, Queenie Wu, whose chocolates deliver a multi-layered taste experience while showcasing Taiwan's produce. Of the international win, she said, "The awards not only represent me personally, but through them I hope to inspire more women in dessert-related industries to pursue their dreams and shine internationally. I am very happy that Taiwan has given us such good nutrients and environment. Through chocolate, Taiwan's superb chocolate-making, deliciousness and terroir have a place in the world."
—Chelsea Su, Lifestyle Editor, Taiwan
Fu Wan Chocolate
Warren Hsu may have started out as founder and executive chef at Fu Wan Resort in Pingtung, in the south of Taiwan, but when a cacao farmer brought him a Taiwanese cacao bean, everything changed and he decided to establish Fu Wan Chocolate. One of few bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Taiwan, Hsu processes and ferments local beans to create a range of bars, many of which also incorporate bold flavours such as Sakura shrimp, Thai curry and tie-guan-yin tea. Fu Wan won big at the International Chocolate Awards 2020-2021, taking home 19 awards. Some of Fu Wan's most intriguing awarded bars included its Strawberry Beer Yeast 70%, Taiwan Red Jade Tea 62%, Taiwan Red Oolong Tea 62%, and Taiwan Magao (Wild Pepper) 62%.
One of earliest bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate makers to come out of Asia, Marou was founded by Vincent Mourou and Sam Maruta in 2011 with a focus on making chocolate using only Vietnamese cacao sourced from six provinces in the nation's south. Its beautifully packaged bars highlight the nation's varied terroir across the Mekong Delta. As well as its chocolate products, Marou operates Maison Marou, a cafe-patisserie-chocolate factory concept with outposts in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and hopes to expand these venues internationally to keep up with its products, which can currently be purchased across the globe.
Indonesia is the third largest producer of cocoa beans in the world, yet the nation has primarily been a processor rather than a chocolate maker. Toby Garritt wanted to change this when he founded artisan chocolate brand Pod Chocolate in 2010. With a background in conservation, he had discovered cacao while working on a project in Indonesian Papua, but came to understand that the bean was mainly processed into powder or butter and made into low quality products rather than going from bean to bar. Farmers were not encouraged to produce high quality products as the price paid was so low. What began as a small chocolate making hobby saw Garritt develop Pod to work closely with farmers, ensuring they had a sustainable farming model, could improve all parts of the process and received a fair price. The premium chocolate he makes with quality beans from the farmers he works with are sold from what he likens to a cellar door at a winery––Garritt grew up on a vineyard in Australia. At the Pod Chocolate shop and cafe in Bali visitors can see behind the scenes into the chocolate factory where European machines make light work of Indonesia’s premium cocoa beans, and taste and buy the resulting products, all of which are plant-based and incorporate local unrefined sugar in the form of coconut blossom sugar and a non-dairy milk blend made from cashews and coconuts. Garritt currently sources his beans from Bali, but is working on two new single origins made with beans sourced from other parts of Indonesia.
Thailand has long grown cacao, but with neither a market nor buyers, it was a crop that had rarely been nurtured until the recent bean-to-bar movement, which has encouraged farmers and seen the rise of homegrown brands such as Kad Kokoa. Founded in 2018 by Thai lawyers Nuttaya and Paniti Chunhasawatikul, Kad Kokoa works with four farms across Thailand––in Chiang Mai, Cantaburi, Chumphon and Prachuap Khiri Khan––not only using their cacao beans for its single origin chocolate bars––and products which also incorporate local flavours such as Cantaburi pepper, salted tamarind and shiso seeds––but supporting and ensuring a sustainable livelihood for farmers.
“There’s nothing that makes Thai beans specifically different, but there are some characteristics of them, like the acidic flavour,” says Leo Sebag, COO of Kad Kokoa. “Some have bright acidity that gives a lot of depth to desserts. But we have four origins or our chocolate and they all have very different profiles––they are all slightly acidic, but some have more red berry, some more exotic fruits, some more citrus.” Whatever the profile, the Thai chocolate brand is gaining renown––Kad Kokoa won two accolades from the Agency for the Valorization of Agricultural Products (AVPA), a non-profit organisation that recognises agricultural products showcasing terroir, this year: a silver for its Kad Kokoa Chantaburi single origin 70% and gold for the Kad Kokoa Chumphon single origin 70%. The brand has also been embraced by chefs across Thailand, who incorporate the local chocolate into menus in the nation’s luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Paul and Mike
Another recent award-winning chocolate out of Asia is Indian chocolate brand Paul and Mike, whose 64 per cent Dark Sichuan Pepper and Orange Peel Vegan Chocolate was awarded a silver medal at the International Chocolate Awards 2020-2021. This “farm to bar” brand grows and ferments cocoa beans in Kochi and Coimbatore, as well as sourcing beans from other farmers in Kerala and Andhra, before crafting its bars, barks, bonbons and even caramel chocolate beer in Kochi, Kerala. All ingredients used are natural, made with real fruits, nuts, spices and floral distillates, while flavours have been designed to appeal to a range of palates, but especially the local market with Indian fruit flavours such as sitaphal (custard apple) and Alphonso mango, among many others.
—Rachel Duffell, Regional Content Director, Tatler Dining
This article was originally published on July 7, 2021 and was updated on February 8, 2022.