What is Mole?

Featured Image courtesy of Luis Cordova 2010

Often referred to as the “Mexican sauce with chocolate in it” this dish is poorly understood outside of Mexico. Even referring to mole simply as a sauce is somewhat a misnomer as it is so much more than that. A mole is no less than a culinary work of art. Each ingredient is individually cooked and prepared according to its own needs before being combined and ground to form the base of the mole. This paste is then thinned with stock to its desired consistency. Some moles are very thick and can even be used as a filling for another dish (think tamales) whilst others can be thinned to the consistency of a hearty, soupy broth.

The word mole (mōh-lāy) may initially seem to have roots in the Spanish word “moler” (to grind) but this appears coincidental, even though a mole is derived from the grinding of a multitude of ingredients into an unctuous (1) paste. Mole is derived from the Nahuatl “molli” (2) which is generally said to refer to something being ground (from hard to soft) or a concoction (sauce) of substances ground together. Molli can be found in words such as “molcajete” (2) and āhuacamōlli (3).

  1. Unctuous derives from a Latin word meaning ointment. The literal translations of unctuous are fairly negative (see below) and I have always found it to be somewhat disparaging. *having a greasy or soapy feel *smooth and greasy in texture or appearance *having, revealing, or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality. However from a cheffy point of view unctuous is meant to denote a smooth (even creamy or velvety) and luxurious texture
  2. or alternatively “mulli” meaning a type of stew (guisado)
  3. the Mexican “mortar and pestle” (molcajete and tejolote) made from volcanic rock and, along with the metate, an important kitchen implement at the heart of the Mexican kitchen.
  4. Āhuacamōlli – a sauce made from ground avocados and the root of the modern word guacamole

Zarela Martinez, a Mexican born restaurateur and cookbook author who serves on the Board of Directors for the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York and is an ambassador of regional Mexican cooking to the U.S.A. has this to say about the mole. “What all moles have in common are the following, they’re all pureed, they all contain chiles, either fresh or dried, and they all have aromatics, like onions, roasted garlic, tomatoes or tomatillos. The other thing that they all share is that they have some kind of thickener, which can be nuts, seeds, bread, or tortillas, or some of all of the above.”

The legend of the creation of mole as it is commonly understood usually revolves around one particular variety of mole, that of Mole Poblano. It, more or less, goes something like this. The dish was created by nuns (1) in a convent (2) in preparation for a visiting dignitary (3). In some stories its creation was accidental (4), was the result of divine guidance (5) or was potentially the reinvention of an ancient Aztec dish (6). Regardless of the veracity of its initial creation myth the dish was well received and it has entered the canon of Mexican cooking history (so much so that within México it is generally believed to be a “traditional” Mexican dish and is even designated as the “National Dish of México”)

  1. or alternatively a monk Fray Pascual
  2. Santa Clara or Santa Rosa in the State of Puebla
  3. An Archbishop or Viceroy, depending on the story.
  4. A sudden gust of wind upended the spice tray which fell into the cooking pot and there was no time to correct the error.
  5. The nun prayed for inspiration and was “guided” in her efforts by the Divine.
  6. The nun responsible for the kitchen was unwell and the cooking of the meal fell to one of her loyal assistants, an indigenous woman, who reinterpreted a dish from her grandmothers kitchen which included indigenous ingredients and Spanish imports added to please the dignitary.

The addition of chocolate as an ingredient in mole poblano is somewhat contested. Although there is no doubt that chocolate was extremely popular in prehispanic times it has been stated (1) that although food writers consider mole poblano to be the representative of the “pinnacle of the Mexican cooking tradition” that the dish has no foundations in Aztec tradition and that the idea of using chocolate as a flavouring ingredient would have been “horrifying” to the Aztecs (2). Up until the publishing of this particular book (1) it has generally been believed that chocolate was only used as a drink. There have been further developments since then though. In 2012 findings by the Archaeologist Tomás Gallareta Negrón, of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (3) of the discovery of cacao residue found on the pottery shards of plates (rather than cups) recovered by him in 2001 from the Paso del Macho archaeological site in Yucatán were published which suggest that a sauce made from cacao was used as part of the meal eaten. This demonstrated that approximately 2500 years ago that cacao was being used as an ingredient in something other than drinks (in Maya lands anyway).

  1. The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe [Thames and Hudson: London] 1996 (p. 216-7).
  2. although I do find it difficult to see how anyone living 500 years after the decline of the Aztec empire can make a judgement call such as this.
  3. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or INAH-Conaculta

Ingredients in Mole Poblano

  • tomato
  • tomatillos (tomate verde)
  • white onion
  • cloves garlic
  • olive oil, or vegetable oil (or pork lard – manteca)
  • mulato chiles
  • ancho chiles
  • pasilla chiles
  • chipotle meco chiles
  • corn tortilla
  • blanched almonds
  • hulled raw (green) pumpkin seeds
  • raisins
  • baguette
  • small ripe (brown or black) plantain
  • unhulled sesame seeds
  • canela (cinnamon)
  • cloves
  • aniseed
  • coriander seeds
  • whole allspice berries
  • whole black peppercorns
  • chocolate
  • sugar
  • salt

Items in bold text are those imported by the Spanish.

The creation of mole has definite Moorish influence. Spain, having only just freed itself from rule under an Islamic Caliphate was exerting its influence on the world stage but was still itself being strongly influenced by more than 700 years of Islamic rule. This is particularly notable when it comes to the kitchen.

Compare the ingredients (from those of the Mole Poblano as indicated above) and processes of creating a mole with this 13th century chicken dish from Al-Andalus (1) taken from Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus fi `asr al-Muwahhidin, li-mu’allif majhul (2).

Making a Green Hen [cilantro chicken]

Cut up the [dead] hen, joint by joint, clean it and put in a pot. Throw in two spoons of vinegar and the same amount of cilantro juice, three spoons of oil, cilantro pounded with half an onion, coriander seed, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, stalks of fennel, citron leaves, almonds, shelled pine-nuts and enough water. Cook over moderate coals.

This dish resembles in many ways a typical mole (apart from the fact that the chicken is cooked in the sauce). The only ingredients it lacks are those originating in Mesoamerica (3). Many moles, particularly the green ones contain an anise component through the addition of either hoja santa or avocado leaves. The recipe above for mole poblano uses aniseed and the Andalusian chicken dish utilises fennel stalks.

  1. also known as Muslim Iberia, or Islamic Iberia
  2. The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads, by an unknown author.
  3. Tomato, chile, pumpkin seed, plantain, corn tortilla and chocolate.

Mole was definitely a prehispanic dish however. Some different types of mole as described by Sahagun are as follows

  • Chamolmulli – (also known as acociltlatonilli) a dish made with acociles, a small freshwater shrimp like crustacean
Image from Reproducción y crecimiento del acocil Cambarellus montezumae: Biología del acocil de Xochimilco by José Luis Arredondo Figueroa (Author), Jesús T. Ponce Palafox (2011)
  • Chilmulli: sauce made from chile peppers.
  • Chiltecpin mulli: sauce made with the small and hot chiltecpitl (chiltepin) chile and tomatoes.
Chiltepin chile
  • Chilcuzmulli xitomayo: sauce made from yellow chili with tomatoes.
  • Huauhquilmulli: (one of my favourites) it is made with quintoniles (a quelite – wild herb used for its greens), yellow chili, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds or with chiltepecpitl only.
Photo by JUANVC
  • Meoculin chiltecpin molloh: sauce made from maguey worms in chiltecpin sauce.
  • Pochehuac chilmulli: sauce made from blackened (smoked) chiles.

Oaxaca. The land of the 7 moles.

Oaxaca, known as the “land of the seven moles” is a culinary destination and a true foodie haven for those wishing to visit Mexico and although there are many more than seven moles that originate in Oaxaca it is the following few that are most often espoused. Even these seven have no set recipes but are more a basis for suggestion. Each family will have their own particular nuances when creating even these few dishes.

The 7 moles in contention are (in no particular order)

  1. Manchamantel – The tablecloth stainer – an intensely sweet/spicy/fruity red mole containing ancho chile, chorizo, tomato, plantains and pineapple
  2. Coloradito – a deep red mole which uses mashed plantains as its thickener
  3. Chichillo – a complex mole using dried chiles (arbol, ancho, guajillo or mulato, pasilla and chilhuacle) reconstituted in dark beef stock and often thickened with masa (instead of nuts)
  4. Negro – a dark and complicated mole (both in ingredients/cooking technique and flavour). Like the mole poblano this mole makes use of spices such as cloves, cinnamon, cumin, allspice, coriander seed, black pepper
  5. Poblano – the mythical chocolate mole (although mole negro can contain chocolate). Sometimes called Mole Rojo (red mole). A sweet/spicy mole which usually contains dried chiles (ancho, mulato, pasilla or guajillo) raisins, almonds (or peanuts or sesame seeds)
  6. Verde – (or Pipian) a green mole which uses fresh chiles (jalapenos), pepitas (a variety of hull-less pumpkin/squash seed which has a high oil content), green herbs (cilantro, hoja santa) and often tomate verde (tomatillos)
  7. Amarillo – (which translates as yellow but is often an orange colour) an essential ingredient in this mole is the chilhuacle amarillo chile from Oaxaca. This chile can be very difficult to obtain outside of Oaxaca
Chilhuacle Amarillo chile

A less common (but Oaxacan none the less) is Mole Blanco (White Mole) also known as Mole de Novia or the Brides Mole. This pale, garlicky dish is typical of moles in its construction. Its base is white onion and garlic and is thickened with nuts such as pine nuts, almonds or peanuts and white corn tortillas. Some recipes call for the addition of that most quintessential of Mexican drinks, Pulque. This type of mole is truly a special event dish and may be served at Easter or Christmas. I have seen some recipes that contain white chocolate but this is anathema to me. If, as previously noted, chocolate was not used in moles then there is NO WAY white chocolate would ever have been used (1).

  1. Cacao (cocoa) butter is generally believed to have been “invented” or “discovered” by the Van Houtens sometime between 1828 – 1858 as part of the Dutching process of the cacao bean. This involved using a hydraulic press to remove the oils from the cacao bean and then pulverising and treating the dry mass with alkaline salts to create a water soluble cocoa powder. the expressed oils are what the cacao butter is composed of. Cocoa butter can also be made by fermenting the cacao bean, drying then roasting them and then grinding them into a fine powder. This powder is then cooked in boiling water which releases the oils that then float to the top of the pot. After collecting and cooling the oil it solidifies into cocoa butter (of a sort). I have no doubt that the process is a little more complex than I’ve described it but I also have no doubt that this process in one form or another was carried out in prehispanic Mesoamerica. There is one drink called “tejate” which through careful preparation which makes use of the fat of the cacao bean to produce a thick creamy foam that floats on the surface of the drink. See Soleri, Daniela and Cleveland, David A. , ‘Tejate: Theobroma Cacao and T. bicolor in a Traditional Beverage from Oaxaca, Mexico’, Food and Foodways, 15:1, 107 – 118 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07409710701260131
Photo courtesy http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/

Other varieties of mole.

  • Mole esperanza is made with “green fat chiles” (poblano) cleaned and roasted, tomatoes, tomato, garlic, epazote.
  • Mole xiqueño (Mole de Xico). A mole from a town (Xico) in the coastal region of VeraCruz. Considered one of the sweetest moles and contains fruits such as plantains, raisins, prunes and the dried ancho chile. Thickened with nuts such as hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans or almonds.
  • Mole prieto or Tlilmollimole, from the region of Tlaxcala. A variant of mole negro. Pork is the primary meat for this dish, some of which is cooked and ground into a paste to be part of the sauce. Often contains Cuitlacoche (huitlacoche) corn fungus. Thickened with corn masa.
  • Huaxmole (Mole de caderas). Goat is the meat used for this dish and often contains huaje (or guaje) the seeds of the pods of the Leucaena tree native to Tehuantepec and Yucatan. The seeds have a sharp garlic like flavour. They can be eaten when young and fresh or roasted when older. They are often ground and added to salsas. Guajes will get a post of their own. Look out for it.
Guaje. Seeds of the Leucaena leucocephala tree
  • Mole Almendrado. A mole thickened primarily with almonds.
  • Mole Rosa. A pink mole coloured with beetroot…………. and (of course)
Pink Mole from La Vida Urbana, a Mexican restaurant in the Leederville suburb of Perth Western Australia
  • Guacamole. At its most basic guacamole is just freshly crushed avocado. Sometimes it is blended to a smooth liquid sauce, sometimes it has lime juice, serrano chile, diced onion, diced tomato, cilantro, papaloquelite etc etc etc. The combinations (and controversy) are endless. I have even seen recipes by that doyenne of Mexican cookery Diana Kennedy that contain ingredients such as grapes, pomegranate seeds and diced peaches.

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