The Theory of Mole
Mole isn’t just one thing; it isn’t one sauce that you can locate in a cookbook and declare mastery over after preparing it a few times. Talking with chefs about mole, reading about it, and eating it has shown me that mole is more about technique and theory than it is about whatever you can find out about it on the page. We published an article in which chef Enrique Olvera describes what he makes as “living mole” or “mole madre.” Rather than start from scratch every day to make a fresh batch of sauce, Olvera and his team at Pujol reheat the residue of whatever is leftover from the day before, feeding it with fresh ingredients to replenish it, but never changing its inherent genetic structure. “The only thing we know is that the seasons and the mole’s attitude on the day in question are going to determine the preparation. Sometimes we add macadamias, sometimes almonds. Once, because we thought the mole was starting to get bored and needed a little kick in its ass, we threw in a dash of tamarind.” Our palates change, the weather changes, everything around us changes, and, so too, must mole.
Mole comes from the pre-Spanish, Nahuatl word “molli,” meaning sauce or stew, but as a result of colonialism also has roots in the Spanish verb “moler” meaning to grind. The techniques and understanding of mole come from this cultural clash brought on by Columbus in the New World. While colonialists came seeking spices and brought many of their own, they wildly failed to transmit any of the food technologies they discovered in the New World to their native countries, with the exception of grinding cacao. The Spaniards did not learn to properly process chiles, rehydrating them and grinding them as the indigenous cultures did, so their sauces lacked the thickness, fruitiness, and, most importantly, the nutritional value from vitamin C that the sauces of the New World featured.
Mole, in its current form, has many origins in Spanish technique and ingredients, but part of the reason for its popularity is located in that Father Bernardino de Sagahún, a Spanish-born priest and missionary in the early 16th century, instructed the inhabitants of the then-Aztec area where Mexico is now, to eat that which the Castilian people eat (that being the spiced foods and nut-based sauces) because it is good, and then you will become good. This directive is thought to have encouraged the native people to muddle their own cuisine with that of their colonizers in an effort to emulate them and gain salvation.
There is not one origin story of mole. Some attribute its invention to a Sor Andrea de la Asuncion, a nun from the city of Puebla de los Angeles and the convent of Santa Rosa, who was cooking a meal in honor of a visiting archbishop. This story goes that she, in an attempt to blend the flavors of the Old and New Worlds, accidentally created one sauce with the chiles of the region along with the spices brought by the colonists, to create a sauce similar to the mole we know today. Another tale tells of Viceroy Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza who was visiting Puebla and a Fray Pascual prepared a banquet for him. In the process of cooking, a tray filled with his spices sat next to his cazuela, the large, traditional cooking vessels used for stewing sauces like mole, was upturned by the wind and all his ingredients fell into the pot creating a heavily spiced and rich stew. However, as Maricel Presilla points out in her compendium to Central American cuisine, “Gran Cocina Latina,” nuns and members of the priesthood are rarely, if ever ones to do things accidentally. So, a more likely explanation for mole lies in the mixing of New and Old world pantries in a category of cuisine often referred to as “mestizaje.”
What we do know about mole, generally is that the ingredients must be prepared beforehand to bring out their full flavor. Some ingredients are ground in a molcajete, a volcanic stone mortar and pestle, while others are pulverized using more modern and larger-scale methods, like molinos or blenders. Roasting, toasting, and frying often precede or follow the processing of ingredients to ensure that the sauce has an utterly silky texture. Because of the intensity of preparation, moles are typically celebratory feast foods, prepared by the whole family in advance of a holiday or family celebration. The broader categories of ingredients that define mole are described below. Yes, something that you might find integral to some mole you make might be missing, but, as I’ve said, mole is different person to person, region to region, day to day.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that mole making was mechanized. Towns always had a need for grinding nixtamalized corn for masa, cacao for chocolate, and ingredients for mole, but the accessibility of electricity in the villages of Oaxaca was scarce. Villages often had a central molino or mill for these processes, cleaned between each use to keep family’s proprietary recipes separate. Before electricity reached these areas, molinos were powered by gas, unfortunately imparting unwelcome flavors and aromas to the moles or masa they produced. A traditional molino, now powered by electricity, centers around a stone wheel made from volcanic rock to replicate the texture achieved with the more primitive molcajete— a traditional, volcanic mortar and pestle primed with uncooked rice to give it its signature, rough texture. Molinos are incomparable to a modern day blender because of the inconsistency of texture and the inevitable loss of ingredients. The significance of molinos remains in many towns both in Oaxaca and in other Mexican communities outside of Mexico, providing a gastronomical hub for primarily women to congregate, much like a marketplace, and discuss communal business— but never their mole recipes, which cooks guard with their lives.
Without chiles there would be no mole. A New World discovery, chiles are members of the genus Capsicum, where their heat is derived from the alkaloid compound capsaicin that is found primarily in the fruit’s ribs and veins. Their name was muddled in the transition from the New World back to the old, where they were called “pimientos,” related to the Spanish word for black peppercorns, “pimienta,” which Columbus expected to find in his misdirected travels. Chile, like mole, has origins in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, with the term “chili”— close enough. The chiles found in mole are primarily part of the annuum group, one that contains perhaps the varieties and flavor intricacies that have most greatly effected cooking.
Any pepper can be dried, but some are definitely better suited to the drying process. The fleshy yet dried chiles used in mole require a soak in water for a brief time before use. Soaking time must be rather short to retain the chiles’ flavors rather than letting them slough off in the water. Though it is always tempting to skin things, chiles included, their skins are an essential thickener and flavorer for the final sauce.
Chile Serrano – Serrano chiles are a primary source of heat in Mole Verde. These chiles are used in their fresh state because of their clean and pronounced flavor. The name serrano means “mountain chile”.
Chile Ancho – The ancho chile provides a sharp, fruity flavor in mole but is also often ground into powder to season other dishes. Frequently confused with the mulato chile, the ancho is blacker and does not have the chocolatey tones prized in the mulato. The most available chile in Mexico, the ancho is, in fact, a fully ripened poblano pepper, usually seen in its fresh, semi-ripe, green state in dishes like chile rellenos. Once the poblano is fully mature and deep red in color, approximately 4 1/2 inches long and 3 inches wides, it is dried. Though unrelated to the pasilla chile, it is puzzlingly also called the pasilla roja though it is neither red nor does it share a flavor profile with the pasilla.
Chile Chilhuacle – This chile is nearly impossible to find outside of Oaxaca. It is unique in that the fruit ripens to various shades ranging from black, to red, and yellow, and plants adjacent to one another can even ripen to completely different colors. Once dried, the chilhuacle takes on rich, plummy flavors and medium heat. It is integral to the true preparation of mole negro.
Chile Chipotle (Meco, Ahumado, Seco) – Jalapenos, once smoke-dried, become chipotles. With hot, dry heat, the simple and common flavor of the ubiquitous jalapeno is transformed into something deep and mysterious.
Chile Costeno – These chiles have a moderate heat with a tapered, narrow shape and bright orangey red color.
Chile de Árbol – Although the name árbol translates to tree in English, these chiles in fact grow from a tall, mangy plant, somewhat unlike the majority of chiles which grow from lower, bush-like plants. The fruits, like most chiles, begin green but ripen to a bright orangey-red which holds throughout the drying process. These chiles are markedly smaller at 3 inches long and less than 1/2 inch wide, with a very smooth skin. They are used solely for their Scoville powers and are very, very hot.
Chile Guajillo – After the ancho, the guajillo is the second most common dried chile in Mexico because of its affordability and accessibility. Its appearance is similar to the pasilla with a long tapering shape, but it has smooth, tough dark maroon skin with tangy and bright flavors. Guajillo chiles famously rattle because of their seed structure. So, in the north central region of Mexico they are nicknamed cascabel— rattle— because of their likeness to the tail of a rattlesnake (not to be mistaken with another chile also named cascabel). To complicate taxonomy further, when fresh, this family of peppers is jokingly called mirasol, ‘looking at the sun,’ because the fruits hang down on the plant rather than point upwards.
Mulato – The mulato shares much of its genetics with the poblano (and ancho) but has modified genes for color and taste. The flavor of the mulato is prized for its chocolatey sweetness but the chile still usually packs a fair amount of heat. Mulatos are rarely seen in their fresh state because the prices they fetch dried far exceed that of their fresh form. Usually slightly bigger than the ancho, the mulato is blackish brown in color and has a smoother skin. The mulato is famed for its place in rich, black mole poblano.
Pasilla – Pasilla chiles are also referred to as negro chile or pasilla de Mexico within the state of Oaxaca and begin their life as fresh chilaca peppers. Their wrinkly, shiny black skin gives them the nickname “little raisin,” but the flavors of this chile are quite savory and tannic with notes of green bell pepper.
Since the 15th century explorers have ventured out of Europe in pursuit of spice, yet were a bit baffled when they stumbled upon South and Central America’s different breed of spice cabinet. During the colonization of Latin America, saffron, cloves, anise, cinnamon, black pepper, and cumin were heavily imported from Spain. To determine the age of a dish in Latin American’s culinary history, one can simply look to the amount of these spices— the older the dish, the more perfumed it is.
Rachel Laudan, in her book “Cuisine and Empire,” traces the origins of mole-type sauces to dishes referred to as “moriscos” and “mestiz,” meaning “mixed race.” Gallina Morisco is described in the Recetario de Domingua de Guzman, circa 1750, as a sauce with oregano, mint, parsley, capers, garlic, cumin, and the typically Islamic spices of cloves, cinnamon, and black peppercorns in a fusion of New World and Old Word ingredients— akin to a mixing of races in colonial Central America. The description for mestizo drops the spices and substitutes the New World ingredients tomatoes and chiles.
NUTS AND SEEDS
The essential addition of nuts or seeds to most moles is related to the Spanish-influenced New World recipes called ‘pipianes’ in Mexico or ‘pepianes’ in the rest of Central America. Maricel Presilla generalizes this technique as “seed-enriched pepper pots” that Bernardino de Sahagún mentions in his early 16th century writings on food. Stews of fish, poultry, or seafood were cooked in sauces that combined chiles, tomatillos, and ground pumpkin seeds, called ‘chilmolli’ in Nahuatl, which translated into Spanish as pepianes from the Spanish word pepita, meaning seeds of fruits. These sauces were typically less involved technically and ingredient-wise, using only one or two chile varieties, but still focusing on the same roasting and toasting of the ingredients, grinding them into a paste, and frying in lard, to then produce a sauce, thinned with broth, for protein to be finished in. Like in pepianes, the nuts and seeds in moles provide a mellow richness to the sauce and must be toasted properly to contribute the proper flavor.
Most moles contain just a hint of starch to thicken the sauce to a velvety consistency and add certain flavors. In darker colored moles like negro, rojo, chichilo, and poblano, tortillas or bread can be charred to carbonated blackness to add a pronounced bitterness and darken the color. Pan de yema, an egg-enriched semi-sweet roll common in Mexico, is a frequent addition to mole recipes but most English adaptations of these recipes permit the substitution of French bread. In lighter moles, raw, prepared masa, like that used for tortillas and tamales, is stirred in towards the end of cooking for texture and as an emulsifier. Other commonly used thickeners include, sweetened crackers, like animal crackers, corn tortillas, baguettes, and breadcrumbs (both fresh and stale).
Mole often toes the line between sweet and savory. Yes, many of us think of it as a chocolate sauce we serve with chicken, but what really underlines the fruity and rich notes in the sauce is the addition of dried or fresh fruit. Most commonly, mole recipes call for dried raisins or prunes, a perfect way to not only produce stewed flavors, but also create body in the sauce. Some cooks fry these dried fruits, but some choose to instead soak them in the same liquid as the chiles for added flavor. Dried fruits, while sweet, also maintain much of their original acidity, which can be necessary in somewhat fattier moles where the ingredients are fried in an excess of lard. In the famous manchamanteles tablecloth staining mole, along with some other recipes, fresh apple, pineapple, and other fruits are added toward the end of cooking to maintain their fresh flavors and contribute a sweet and sour effect. Plantains are also frequently seen in many mole recipes for their earthy, sweet flavor, and their starchy texture, acting as both a thickener and a flavorant.
Even modern mole recipes by North American authors call for frying mole paste in lard. Unfortunately, many of us do not have access to the home-rendered pork fat that was once a necessity in the making of mole in Mexico. Though it is now possible to buy commercial hydrogenated lard or even heritage pork lard from certain high-end butchers, these products can impart very little flavor or too much flavor that can detract from the purity of a true mole. Yes, vegetable oil is a fine substitute, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can befriend a kind chicharron maker who might share his extra fat with you. But, another good candidate for the frying process of mole can be found in high quality olive oil. Presilla recommends one with a strong green color and fruity notes to echo those within the sauce.
CHOCOLATE AND SUGAR
In Copain, Honduras, a hub of Mayan civilization, Jeffery Hurst of Hershey’s discovered a vessel of turkey bones with residues of theobromine, a component of cacao, and capsaicin, the key compound in chiles. This remnant of a precursor to mole emphasized the connection between cacao, chiles, and poultry that is maintained today. There, the Kekchi Maya of Alata Verapaz made a condiment of ground wild piquín chiles and roasted cacao beans, rolled into balls, and eaten with turkey. Tradition hasn’t changed much as cooks all over Central America today still add Mexican chocolate, a combination of cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes ground almonds, to their moles at the end of cooking.
I don’t know how mole became synonymous with “chocolate sauce,” but, probably the Americanized palate has something to do with it. Many moles do have, at their base, a small amount of Mexican-style, bittersweet chocolate, a relic from pre-Columbian Mexico, but its hefty list of ingredients does seemingly outweigh the presence of that small notion of chocolate. Mole bears some resemblance to traditional, masa-thickened beverages like champurrado and atole, but also to many nut-thickened sauces of Spanish origin. The chocolate, and sugar, traditionally in the form of Mexican loaf sugars like piloncillo but now substituted with white sugar, add richness, body, and sweetness, in a similar Old World way as the chiles do, but chocolate, perhaps for reasons of popularity, usually overshadows the history of chiles in mole.
Yes, Oaxaca is called the land of the seven moles, but even in that small province of Mexico there are so many more. The discussion we can have about the variations between negro, chichilo, colorado, coloradito, manchamanteles, amarillo, and verde (rojo, poblano, and so many more), is infinite and so utterly fluid, that I, as a white girl from New York, am seriously even afraid to broach the subject.
Jorge Vallejo from Quintonil in Mexico City, described mole to me as “a matter of sensibility, where the cook and the ingredients need to talk to make a perfect match of balance between spicy, bitter— some of the ingredients need to be charred, in some cases sweetness— when mole has chocolate or piloncillo— and, of course the nuts, and every single ingredient that comes in. Actually the mole evolves every time you heat it up, and becomes more sophisticated. As Mexicans have these flavors in the DNA because, since childhood, we’ve grown up with this. That’s why mole is a recipe that I can say how sophisticated Mexican cuisine can be— evolution and tradition in a single dish.”
Included in this article is a chart that includes most of the ingredients in various mole recipes from five cookbooks. Diana Kennedy has written many tomes on the subject of Mexican cuisine and mole and her recipes for many of the moles have evolved with her writings. Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s “Mexican Gastronomy” book includes a giant chart of 37 mole variations, only some of which I’ve included here. In perusing many of the writings in English on the subject of mole, I have found that, while we have many recipes for negro, poblano, and verde variations, we certainly lack in the categories of chichilo and rojo. One of the more minute things I have learned from this project, speaking briefly with the chef and owner, Natalia Mendez, of La Morada in the Bronx, is never to microwave your leftover mole. It truly does lose something. Mole is not a dish for the lazy, and, even in reheating it, you should not fall to those lows.
Photo courtesy of David Boté Estrada.