By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Some sauces are synonymous with their countries of origin – béarnaise from France, tomato-y Italian marinara, and intriguing curry of India. In Mexico, it’s mole (MOH-le), and Oaxaca is where it has achieved perfection.
Legend has it that in the late 17th century a nun in Puebla, near Mexico City, wanted to honor the Viceroy for building a new convent, so she set about preparing a sauce for the evening’s meat that blended the best, most expensive ingredients she could find. A divine wind gathered and blew many of the spices into the pot she was using, creating the complex combination that characterizes Mexican mole. Today, the savory sauce delights the palates of Mexican food lovers everywhere.
Served over poultry, pork, beef, seafood or vegetables, and often mischaracterized as a chocolate sauce (only one of our reproduced recipes includes chocolate), the wide variety of moles incorporates an endless combination of the region’s vegetables, herbs and spices. Some ingredients are native to Mexico, while others were introduced after the arrival of the Spanish. Even though the most famous and widely used mole originated in Puebla (mole poblano), the greatest variety is found in Oaxaca, consisting of coloradito, rojo, mancha manteles, verde, amarillo, chichilo and negro – and innumerable variations of each.
Our two recipes showcase the diversity of this amazing sauce, with a negro and an amarillo, as developed by Oaxacans in the state capital. Most ingredients are available at larger markets in the U.S. and Canada, but some may require a trip to your local Mexican grocer. For the best, most authentic flavor, buy fresh or frozen rather than dried or canned. Chile chilhuacle is the most difficult ingredient to find, so either bring some back from Oaxaca, omit its use, or substitute with other chiles. The recipes of Chef Pilar Cabrera of Casa de los Sabores Cooking School and Nora Valencia of Alma de Mi Tierra cooking school, are now most often served in a contemporary fashion, with mole poured over the meat once plated, and vegetables served alongside.
Give them a try and learn what has earned mole the title of the national dish of Mexico.