My pantry’s beginning to look like a mad scientist’s lair. There’s a dodgy looking bottle of Absolut vodka, sloshing with a dark, dense, dusty liquid. About six months ago, I sliced and scraped vanilla beans into the clear vodka and set it in a dark corner in an attempt to make vanilla extract. The toughest part so far has been hiding it from my friends, who are determined to find a way to turn it into nauseatingly pink Vanilla Cosmopolitans. Higher up on the shelf lies a jar of Vanilla sugar, speckled with the bean’s tiny black seeds. And now, I’m scouring the Internet for cocoa nibs: the current star ingredient in posh kitchens and glossy blogs.

Although I have been seeing nibs on menu cards for a while, I only took note of them when I tripped upon a bag at an intriguing coffee shop in Auroville. We were in the kitchen with Marc Tourmo, a Spaniard who relocated to India to start one of the country’s first new wave coffee shops in 1995. Determined to be at the helm of what he’s convinced will be a huge food trend, Marc’s been studying Indian cocoa nibs and their uses. He opens a bag and poured the fragrant, jagged little bits into my palm. “Eat this, and you’ll be in heaven,” he chuckles.

What are these mysterious nibs anyway? Well, they’re basically raw chocolate. The cacao bean goes through many stages of peeling, roasting and prepping before it’s ready to be turned into a bar of chocolate. Cocoa nibs are the final stage, before the addition of sugar, milk and flavourings. With a delicate crunchy texture, and a rich, earthy and slightly bitter taste, this the purest hit of chocolate you’ll find. Admittedly, it does take some getting used to. Mostly because our taste buds are trained to expect sweetness from cocoa.

To learn how to enjoy its intense flavour, you can start by sprinkling it over cookies, cakes and granola, so you get used to the flavour, while enjoying the familiar aroma. Then, experiment with incorporating it into regular recipes. Celebrity chef and food writer David Lebowitz makes his Banana Bread with three tablespoons of cocoa nibs, for added texture. His blog also lists recipes for ‘Shallot, Cocoa Nib, Beer and Prune Jam.’ Proving that nibs don’t necessarily have to go into desserts, he also uses them in his pizza, adding the nibs for what he calls a “nice savoury crunch, as well as a bit of chocolate flavour.”

An animated discussion on Chow Hound (the community for the food obsessed) is rife with suggestions on ways to use them — ranging from sprinkling them over brownies for a ‘grown up’ dessert to adding them to cereal, smoothies and ice cream. For people who just want the flavour, you can steep the nibs in panacotta, ice cream or custard and then strain out the pieces. Alternatively, use it as a rub when creating a marinade for meat.

Why bother? Well, if you’re a chocolate addict (and let’s face it, most of us are), this is a great way to get all the benefits of cocoa without the calories of sugar. According to FitDay, an online diet journal, one ounce of cocoa nibs has 130 calories, 13 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbohydrates and three grams of protein. They state that it’s “one of the best dietary sources of magnesium as well as a good source of calcium, iron, copper, zinc and potassium.” They add that these nibs also have higher antioxidant levels than blueberries, red wine and green tea.

Marc loves them for their abilities to boost your energy and spirits. (Cocoa is well-known for its ability to release endorphins.) He’s found an easy way to get his fix. “I roast the raw cocoa like peanuts in a pan, then peel the skin and take out the crunchy bean. I take a full date, and put the bean in it. It’s sweet, delicious and healthy. Since the market is still young, Marc’s only selling beans right now, so customers have to do the roasting and peeling themselves. “When you crush cocoa, it begins to oxidise very fast. So it’s safer to sell the bean whole. But it’s quick and easy to roast and peel,” he says, adding with a grin, “just like peanuts.”

(Marc’s cocoa beans cost about Rs. 360 for 250 grams and are available at auroville.com)

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