Here’s something that happens every time I go to Singapore. The first morning I wake up in my grandmother’s flat, I take a short and sweaty walk to my neighborhood kopitiam and buy myself the same breakfast: two orders of roti pratha with goat curry and an iced Milo.
Milo is, as Patricia Kelly Yeo puts it, “Southeast Asian Nesquik — if Nesquik tasted good.” It is a chocolate malt powder sold in bottle-green plastic cans, usually emblazoned with a photograph of an athlete kicking a soccer ball. In Singaporean and Malaysian supermarkets, there is of course Milo for sale in powder form, but on the shelves there is also Milo whole grain cereal, Milo snack bars, canned Milo, boxed Milo, and bottled dairy-free Milo. The simplest and most common form of the powder, however, is mixed into water or milk and served as a hot or cold beverage.
I get some weird looks when I place my order, in my Midwestern American accent: Roti pratha and iced Milo is breakfast for children, but that’s exactly why I get it. Every other summer until I went to college, I would spend at least a month in Singapore, where my mother was born and grew up and where I have eaten countless roti-and-Milo breakfasts.
But as a historian, I wonder about how the food we now consider commonplace became widespread and mainstream. How did chocolate milk powder get to Southeast Asia? Why is it so prevalent in countries of the global South? How did I, an Asian American historian of Latin America, find myself in a situation where I think about chocolate milk all the time? Cacao is native to Mesoamerica, so I wondered how it made its way around the world during a period dominated by competing world powers. It seemed to me that chocolate could be a good case study for someone with questions about the long arc of global empires. So down the rabbit hole I went.
Before the Europeans arrived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the culinary world of Mesoamerica was fueled by amaranth, chiles, beans, and ever-present maize. Kitchens filled with thick smoke from comales and the chatter of working women. But when cacao appeared on the food scene some 3,500 years ago, it was more expensive, and therefore more coveted by members of the Indigenous elite. Mesoamerican communities such as the Maya and Olmec harvested cacao from the lush equatorial lowlands of Central America. Their xocolatl was a frothy beverage, made from a combination of fermented cacao paste and hot water. It was perfumed with vanilla and marigold and fortified with ground corn, chiles, and honey. Nahua communities considered xocolatl to have medicinal effects: It was a purifying energy drink, a healing draft for colds, or even an aphrodisiac. Among the Nahua and Maya, cacao was so precious that it was also used for currency and diplomatic gifts.
Chocolate first made its way across the Atlantic when the Spanish arrived. The addition of sugar to drinking chocolate — likely stemming from Indigenous sweeteners like honey and maguey syrup — is material evidence of the insidious processes of colonialism. Sugarcane plantations operated by Europeans in the Caribbean, of course, were reliant on the circulation of human chattel throughout the Americas; chocolate’s arrival in Europe came at the expense of not only Indigenous populations, but also the millions of enslaved people brought to Caribbean plantation colonies.
The Spanish empire of the 16th century also grew alongside an intercontinental trade route. Spanish ambitions to reach the wealth of China and India stewarded the creation of an infamous vessel — the Manila galleon — which traveled in annual cycles between Acapulco, Mexico’s Pacific port, and Manila, the colonial capital of the Philippines, trading American silver for Asian exports from 1500 to 1800. Chocolate’s influence began to leach into wares traveling from Asia to the Americas: Asian spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger began to infuse cups of Mexican chocolate, and Asian ceramics developed chocolate-specific qualities to reflect the desires of American and European consumers.
The chocolatero, a totally idiosyncratic Asian American ceramic vessel, was used to hold cacao beans in the Americas, though its physical appearance reflects the blue-and-white aesthetic of Chinese porcelain. It presents an odd snapshot of colonial Asian, American, and European aesthetics. As historian Meha Priyadarshini has observed, there were instances in which the “colony [educated] the metropole in the use of both indigenous and Asian goods.” Documents show that wealthy individuals in the Americas sent shipments of curated commodities back to Spain, including drinking chocolate and the vessels with which to drink it.
But drinking chocolate didn’t become widespread in East Asian drinking culture. Though there is evidence of chocolate making its way to Macau in the 17th and 18th centuries, it never fully caught on: After all, there was a robust local demand for another caffeinated beverage, tea. But after centuries of cultural exchange, chocolate had to make an impact, and finally in the 20th century, with the development of shelf-stable milk powders, it did.
By World War II, global empire had wormed its way into Southeast Asia, eventually resulting in widespread poverty and malnutrition. Competing global powers sought to exercise control over the masses of the global South in the chaotic post-war periods — and how better to influence a country’s political and cultural landscape than to offer a solution to widespread starvation? Singaporeans were taught to consume the food of the empire — primarily British cuisine — in order to develop healthy bodies and therefore become healthy imperial subjects. In the 1960s and ’70s, my mother learned how to bake British biscuits in the home economics class at her primary school, even though no reasonable Singaporean would ordinarily fire up a hot oven in the tropical clag.
In Southeast Asia, places of food preparation in the modern era became classed spaces. As more people received more schooling post-World War II, no middle-class person wanted to be seen laboring in a kitchen. It was better to eat proper meals in public spaces, such as Singapore’s famous hawker centers, while keeping nutritious, easy-to-prepare food at home. An abundance of shelf-stable foods became modern Singaporean staples: instant noodles, canned meat, and sardines stocked the larders of the growing middle class.
Chocolate milk powder was among them. Invented by a number of American and European food scientists at the start of the 20th century, chocolate milk made from a variety of powders — like Milo, Ovaltine, and Horlicks — was marketed towards the lower-middle class, promising bodily strength and athleticism. By the mid-20th century, global food conglomerates like Nestlé, Unilever, Conagra Brands, and Novartis began to peddle chocolate milk powder as a fortifying tonic in South Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Developed by Australian chemist Thomas Mayne in 1934, Milo was “a hygienic, nourishing, yet relatively affordable beverage” that was universally accessible to people of all social classes. Distributed as free samples across the country by special Milo Vans, Milo became Singapore’s ubiquitous drink by the 1970s.
A similar phenomenon was happening in the Americas in the 20th century. Though Milo advertisements appeared in Mexico, Chile, and Peru, Choco Milk powder conquered the Latin American market. Friends from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba have recounted similar stories of slamming cups of Choco Milk before and after school at the urging of their parents, who insisted that chocolate milk had all the nutrients they needed for the day. These friends are still drinking it well into adulthood. (The grown-up version of Choco Milk, my friend Ana Pau told me, has a shot of espresso in it.) Smiling adult football stars in green kits represented Milo, but Choco Milk had Pancho Pantera, a cheeky country boy-turned-athlete, whose buoyant energy was derived solely from drinking chocolate milk. It’s a far cry from xocolatl, but Choco Milk’s advertised nutritional qualities recall the Maya and Nahua perceptions of their own chocolate beverage, centuries before dairy farms and Mead Johnson factories.
The English word “nostalgia” has its roots in the ancient Greek “nostos,” or “homecoming.” When I hear people talk about how they feel about their home, they often reference sounds, smells, and tastes. I am thinking about Milo because I miss “home” — not exactly places I am from per se, but places to which I have deep emotional roots. Milo is not anything gourmet or even especially tasty. It’s just something you drink in the morning with breakfast as a kid. When I was little, I did not know that hot chocolate came from actual chocolate and not a powdered mix. I just needed to be fed and watered as efficiently as possible. My parents needed the mental consolation that they were not neglecting my health, despite their busy schedules. Thus, the answer was Milo.
But nostalgia can be a trap, a shortcut directed toward food tourists looking for culinary “authenticity.” Chocolate’s deep ties to Latin America as well as global popularity in modern times make it a frequent site of contention. Tierra Garat, a popular cafe chain in Mexico City, adorns its storefronts with its bold metaphorical motto: “México es café y chocolate.” Meant to evoke the “magic” of Mexico’s “countryside, farms, and ranches,” Tierra Garat claims to represent an “authentic” and “honest” version of the republic, to both Mexicans and foreigners. Similarly, the Milo-serving spaces of new Singaporean hawker centers profess an “authenticity” by nodding to locals’ nostalgia for Milo. These professions of authenticity, however, obscure how Milo emerged from a real need for affordable nutrition within formerly colonized communities: Sold now to tourists wanting to capture a sumptuous image of the “real” Singapore, they ignore how local communities are impoverished due to the effects of European imperialism. Such movements, which capitalize on nostalgia for a different, nebulously-defined time, make money, but they also obscure the past. For all its sentimentality, Milo is still derived from a food that isn’t indigenous to Southeast Asia, and was in fact brought there by colonizers.
From the cups of Mesoamerican nobility to my grandmother’s shoebox kitchen in Singapore, drinking chocolate has punctuated people’s daily routines for centuries. Following chocolate’s global history from its nourishing ups to its violent downs has yielded questions that make even the most refined chocolate connoisseur lose their way. As for me, a chocolate milk drinker since infancy, I can barely keep my head straight. But rest assured: No matter where I go, I’ll always find my way to a cup of chocolate.