The “Seven” Moles of Oaxaca

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By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Our friend, Sol, categorically stated, “I do not like mole; I do not eat mole.” We tried, unsuccessfully for several years, to convince him that the term mole (MOH-lay) encompasses many different sauces with different tastes and textures. But, even in one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca City renowned for its quality moles, he chose to order plain shrimp.

Then, a few years ago, there was a mole and tortilla contest on the golf course in Tangolunda, Huatulco. Sol joined us at our table looking forward to sampling the tortillas of the dozen chefs participating in the contest. Just to be polite, at the first booth, he accepted some of their mole on his tortilla. He took a small bite and his whole face lit up. The smile on his face grew broader and broader as he sampled the mole from virtually every booth. After completing the circuit, he had definite opinions about the “good, better, best” of the twelve or so preparations. “Twelve or so preparations?”

You may be wondering. “Why the title, ‘The Seven Moles of Oaxaca?’” It turns out to be just a casual expression for a fairly large number. So, it alerts you to expect variations among a relatively large number of different mole mixtures.

The most visible differences among the moles of Oaxaca are the colors: black (negro), green (verde), yellow (amarillo), and red (rojo or coloradito). The colors generally are a guide to the basic taste. Black moles frequently have a slightly sweeter taste, produced by adding chocolate or black raisins. Green moles often have the distinctive taste of ground cilantro, parsley, or other similar herbs that help produce the vivid color. Yellow moles frequently are less assertive, and one can sometimes distinguish the taste of squash, ground almonds or masa (corn meal) that is used to thicken the sauce. And the red moles – well unless you are familiar with the specific type and chef – get prepared to have your mouth tingling. Although almost all of the reds have a rich tomato base, some of them, notably the mancha mantel (tablecloth stainer), have their spiciness tempered with fruit; others may set your tongue on fire.

Independent of color, the preparation of Oaxacan moles is labor-intensive. Most have fifteen to twenty ingredients. Some have thirty or more. The ingredients generally include several types of chilies both fresh and dried such as mulatto, pasilla, chilhuacle, ancho, guajillo or other species virtually unheard of north of the border. A variety of seeds, such as sesame and pumpkin, are also important ingredients.

Peanuts are a common addition as well as true nuts, especially almonds or pecans. Fresh herbs can include hoja santa, pitonia, or epazote. And the dried spices can run the gamut of the range in gourmet grocers shelves. Other frequently used ingredients are some types of fruits or vegetable such as red or green tomatoes, onions, garlic, plantains or pineapples. The liquid ingredient is commonly rich chicken broth, made from scratch of course. And a thickening agent such as masa or bread is also fairly ubiquitous.

Preparation traditionally begins early in the morning at the mercado to choose the chicken and fresh ingredients. Back in the kitchen, after the chicken and flavorings are set on the stove to simmer for the broth, other ingredients are separately soaked, fried, or roasted, individually ground or pureed, combined together and then sautéed to produce a wonderfully complex intensive-tasting paste. The paste is thinned with the chicken broth and then reduced and thickened. For some moles, additional ingredients such as chocolate are added at this point and simmered until just the right consistency. Sounds easy when summarized, but this process can take hours, many pots and pans, and specialized strainers and grinders.

Unlike north of the border, where mole is typically used as a sauce on a large slab of chicken, Oaxaqueños prefer to appreciate the complexity of the tastes with just a small amount of chicken or a tortilla or some rice to transport the sauce from your plate to your mouth. Just as with a fine wine, they are to be savored by sight, smell, taste and texture. When prepared by different cooks, no two moles of the same name are prepared in the same way or taste alike, and distinguishing the differences is part of the enjoyment.

If until now, you have done your best to avoid trying mole, hopefully our description will stimulate a desire to rethink your position and try at least one kind. If you find yourself in the city of Oaxaca, you will easily find excellent moles to sample, or you can take lessons in how to cook them yourself. Then, when you have mastered all “seven” moles of Oaxaca, you can branch out to the different (even famous) moles in other states of Mexico.

Marcia and Jan Chaiken travel from their home in Huatulco at least once a year and make sure they enjoy local moles wherever they go.