Holy Mole! The Mexican National Dish
'Mas mexicano que mole', goes the saying, and no food better represents the spirit of Mexico than this famous dark, rich and spicy sauce.” Isn’t that the one made with chocolate?” people often ask when the subject turns to mole, (pronounced “MOH-lay”) but chocolate is the least of it. While some of the best known moles do indeed include chocolate amongst their many ingredients (the dark ones of Puebla and Oaxacan for example), many do not.
What is mole, really? The word derives from the nahuatl “molli” which means a sauce of ground chilies and nuts or seeds and spices. Perhaps coincidentally moler means to grind in Spanish. The Enciclopedia Gastronómica de México lists 37 varieties of moles from 21 states. It is generally agreed that mole is made of chilies, dried or fresh, spices, herbs, vegetables or fruit, and thickened with seeds, nuts or corn masa. Truly a celebratory dish, in most Mexican families it is reserved for special occasions. Making mole from scratch is a laborious process – some recipes call for up to 100 ingredients, although 15-20 is the norm. It is usually poured over poultry, most often chicken but sometimes turkey or duck, and occasionally pork, rabbit, even iguana. Non-Mexicans, used to a main course of meat augmented by a little sauce, often miss the point: the sauce IS the dish. That small piece of meat floating in a pool of mole is simply there to accompany the sauce to your mouth.
Eating mole may be easy, but making it is another matter..
Culinary historian Jesús Flores Y Escalante writes that in the preface to a recipe for mole poblano, his great grand-mother emphasizes that a minimum 25 ingredients are necessary. Her recipe included:
250g chile mulatos
250g chile pasilla
300g chile ancho
6 chile chipotles (3 mecos and 3 mora grandes)
250 g sesame seeds
½ kg tomatos
2 large onions
1 head garlic
1 stick cinnamon
1 tb cilantro seeds
1 tb anis seeds
a pinch of cumin seeds
2 tortillas, fried golden
50g pumpkin seeds
1 piloncillo (cone of brown suger)
4 tablets chocolate
¼ kg raisins
1 plantain, not very ripe
1 bolillo (roll)
½ kg manteca (lard)
All these ingredients are fried or roasted, then ground and incorporated into the sauce, which is then cooked for hours. And don’t forget to prepare the turkey!
The state of Oaxaca has more varieties of moles, but Puebla’s mole poblano is by far the most celebrated.. Laura Esquivel describes its preparation for a wedding in Like Water For Chocolate – the scene in the movie showing its laborious concoction is memorable. Legend has it that nuns of the convent of Santa Clara in Puebla, were called upon to feed a visiting archbishop. Finding their larder bare, they put together a sauce made of everything they had, cooked it for hours, and threw it over an old turkey, the only creature available. One version even has them praying for a recipe – an angel swoops down and provides. These stories are certainly apocryphal, as similar sauces existed since pre-Hispanic times. In the 16th century, Franciscan monk Bernardo de Sahagún describes an Aztec wedding at which a dish he calls “molli” is served to the bride by her mother-in-law – the newlyweds disappear into the bedroom shortly thereafter.
All Mexican markets sell prepared moles, either in paste or dry ground form. They are easy to prepare – just make a “sofrito” of onion, garlic and tomato in the blender with a little water or broth. Sauté this mixture in some oil, then add the mole paste, turning and mixing the ingredients with the back of a spoon. Then, little by little, very slowly, add the hot stock, mixing and turning. The trick is to stop when the sauce reaches the consistency of heavy cream – it’s easy to add too much liquid, so be careful. Pour over previously braised chicken, or heated tortillas. A good vegetarian option is to serve mole over cauliflower –sounds odd, but the flavors combine well. And be sure to decorate with sesame seeds, sliced white onion and, if you are feeling celebratory, crema.
A few of my favorite places to enjoy moles in Mexico City are:
Fonda Mi Lupita
Calle Buentono 22, near Delicias, Centro
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-6 pm
This tiny fonda, offers only sweet, chocolate-y, mole poblano; it is among the best in the city. Order chicken, either pechuga or pierna, or enchiladas, or simply mole with rice and torti¬llas, all served with the traditional garnish of raw onion rings, sesame seeds and crum¬bled queso fresco,. They also offer mole to take out.
La Bella Lula
Calle Río Lerma 86 (between Río Rhin and Río Sena)
Open daily 10am - 7pm
There are branches in Coyoacán and San Angel:
- Miguel Ángel de Quevedo 652,
-Corregidora no. 5, corner Av. Revolución,
This popular Oaxacan restaurant is a good place to try the southern version of mole. Oaxaca is renowned for its “seven moles”: negro, amarillo, coloradito, colorado, verde, chichilo, and almendrado. Five of these seven moles are on the menu, but the almendrado stands out--sweet and tart with a complex fruity flavor. The tortillas and salsas are top notch here; the ambi¬ence is folkloric and festive.
Avenida Cuitláhuac 2709, Colonia Obrera Popular
-Parque Delta Mall, Av. Cuauhtémoc 462,
-Alejandro Dumas 7, Polanco
-Plaza Parque Reforma 222
Chef Carmen Titita, author of several cookbooks, is a big name in the Mexico City culinary scene.
Her original restaurant, located north of Polanco, features many traditional dishes. The duck in black mole (“de la abuela”) is truly the best I’ve tasted. Also in the menu is pipian verde, and an unusual mole blanco, thickened with corn masa. The menu in all four locations is the same; the Reforma and Polanco branches are the only ones open at night..
Azul y Oro
Centro Cultural Universitario, on the sec¬ond floor above the bookstore (near Sala Nezahualcóyotl), Ciudad Universitaria
Open Sunday-Tuesday, 10am-6pm
Chef and culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s restaurant is off the usual tourist path, but worth the detour. Featuring Oaxacan influences with a modern twist, the changing menu is varied and reason¬ably priced. Duck ravioli with black mole is a lighter way to try the dark stuff, and the enmoladas Tlaxcala style are an interesting variation of poblano mole, slightly sweet, very fruity.
Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved