The Moles of Mexico
Mar 24, 2021 • Shannon Doyne
This rich sauce has many forms, some of which we tackle here.
Luis Martínez is the chef at El Gallo here in Asheville and sometimes we can’t believe our luck that we get to eat his fantastic food. For Luis, his work presents a way to share his passion for the dishes he grew up eating in his native Loxiacha in Mexico’s Oaxaca, a state in the southwestern part of the country that borders the Pacific Ocean. The mountains in this area are known for coffee growing, a business Luis’s father and his family were in. Meanwhile back at their home, Luis watched his mother cook and sell comida corrida, a set-price affordable lunch served in courses that varied according to what was available at the market.
Luis later cooked in restaurants in Oaxaca, the capital city, where he also studied fine arts at a university before moving to the United States as an asylum seeker, finding work first in farming and then in restaurants in Los Angeles and Portland. Luis is now a U.S. citizen and he’s been in Asheville for nearly a decade. No matter where he lives, however, his heart is full of pride and love for the place he’s from and the dishes that, for him, define it.
He shared five of them that he’d love for everyone to know about from his native cuisine.
Of the seven types of mole Oaxaca claims as part of its cuisine, Luis singled out the green one because it’s one that’s comparatively easy to make, healthful, big on flavor, gluten free and can be made with chicken or vegetable stock with equal success. Just looking at mole verde’s greenness, you can guess that common ingredients include tomatillos, cilantro and jalapeños. Its thickening comes from pumpkin seeds.
These open-faced sandwiches were a staple in Luis’s mother’s cooking business during his youth. The bread is a bolillo, savory and baguette-like in that it’s soft in the center with a crusty exterior, which is sliced in half lengthwise, slightly hollowed out and filled with refried black beans and green plantains (that was his mom’s usual recipe) or potatoes and topped with cheese, to be melted when the sandwich slides under a broiler. Luis noted that meat was scarce when he was growing up, in part because people waging guerilla warfare often seized cows from people’s land. You’ll also find mollettes stuffed with ham, chorizo, bacon or mushrooms.
For Luis, it isn’t any green chile that he wants for stuffing minced spicy meat or chicken, plantains or cheese into his chile relleno. Specific to where he’s from, chiles de agua are his choice. Luis said they get their name because they require lots of water, which perhaps explains why they are rare. He described the flavor as distinctly herbal and a fine complement to the fermented tomato raisin sauce often served with this particular version of chile relleno. He also noted that chapulines, a genus of grasshopper found widely in Oaxaca, often appear in chile relleno there as well.
Caldo de Piedra
This Oaxacan tradition whose name translates to “stone soup” is a communal affair. Luis told us that men will get together and make it for the women in their lives who are pregnant to show their gratitude and for encouragement, too. It’s a seafood soup made right at the shore, using stones that have been in a fire as the heating source, and served in hollow dried gourds called jicaras. Luis shared this video, saying it’s a straightforward account of the making and sharing of this soup.
Luis reminisced about the famous market in Tlacolula that roasts the goats and sells the tacos he still thinks about to this day. To prepare the meat barbacoa-style, the whole animal is covered in agave leaves and slow-cooked for 12 to 14 hours in a hole in the ground. Luis noted that in the past, families would order a roasted goat for events like weddings and funerals, but today, the tacos can be found at the market and many other places as well.
All About Mole
Oaxaca is one of two Mexican states known for their mole (pronounced “MOH-lay”), the beloved sauce which you’ll find on enchiladas, burritos, stuffed poblano peppers, nachos, chicken and meat dishes, and in soups and stews, too. But mole is not a recipe: it’s a category unto itself. Food historians and other experts on Mexican cuisine contend that there are at least ten different kinds of mole, and within each of them, recipes that vary from town to town and even from kitchen to kitchen.
You may be wondering, with such a wide array of ingredients, how can these sauces all be moles? What do they have in common? Almost every mole will have ground chilies and most will also have some combination of the following: ground spices (cinnamon, cumin and black pepper are common), ground nuts and/or seeds, something acidic, something sweet, something bitter and finally, something that will thicken the sauce, like bread, cooked potato, plantain or masa harina. Some moles have vegetables or fruit—dried or fresh—and many have chicken or beef stock as their base. It’s not uncommon for moles to have 20 to 30 ingredients. Where does a person start?
For many people in the United States, it starts with mole negro, a memorable sauce, one whose chocolate—ideally Oaxacan stone-ground—balances the smoky, spicy peppers with sweetness. But mole negro is just one star in the constellation. Here, we’d like to offer an enthusiastic but nevertheless incomplete appreciation of mole and some of what we’ve learned about it.
The Mexican states of Oaxaca and Puebla both claim to be the birthplace of mole, and while the best-known moles can be traced to both states, there are other places known for mole as well, some of which use the same names as Oaxaca-originated moles but have different ingredients and preparations. Oaxaca is known as “the land of seven moles” for its amarillo, chichilo, rojo, manchamantel, verde, coloradito and negro moles, while Puebla claims mole poblano, which, when served with turkey in a dish called mole poblano de guajolote, is widely considered the national dish of Mexico.
Though mole is documented as having been part of Aztec celebrations and rituals in pre-hispanic Mexico, there are colonial-era legends about the unexpected arrival of an archbishop at the door of the home of nuns or friars who, wanting to welcome and impress their guest, improvise a meal from what they had on hand, resulting in mole. In her article “Mole and mestizaje: race and national identity in twentieth century Mexico,” however, Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez, Associate Professor in Latin American history at Moravian College, points out that though the story “accounts for the revalorization of the dish, but also shows that European cultural was seen as superior.” She also notes that the work of recent cookbook writers have shown, in highlighting mole’s indigenous origins and how it varies from one region to another, that mole was both a “respectable” dish during the colonial era and the product of Mexico’s “multiple identities,” thereby preventing a single central narrative about indigenous culture and European influence.
As for the word “mole,” it can be traced to the Nahuatl word “molli,” which means “sauce” or “something ground.” Nahuatl (also spelled Nawatl, and in Spanish, náhuatl) is an Uto-Aztecan language spoken by about one million people in central and western Mexico. Also called Aztec, it was the language spoken by the Aztec and Toltec civilizations.
If all of this leaves you wondering if guacamole is in fact a mole, you can likely find people to debate the matter with you. Hoping to avoid controversy here, we will simply note that guacamole has far fewer ingredients and a much less labor-intensive preparation than the moles we’ll tell you about below.
How It’s Made
No matter the mole, making it from scratch is an undertaking. If the recipe calls for roasted ingredients, each one should be roasted and individually ground before joining the stock, which is a recipe in and of itself. The chilies used, which might be one or a combination of ancho, chipotle, pasillo and mulato or others, are placed on a comal, which is a shallow pan for roasting and cooked to the point of blackening, though in some cases, the chilies are burned to ash, before being ground in a molcajete: a mortar and pestle made of rough stone. Spices, nuts, seeds and any vegetables or fruit that you’re using also get the same treatment: roasting and grinding each of them separately. A blender or food processor comes in handy here, as does a fine strainer for keeping solids out of your mole.
If this is more than you have the time or gumption to take on, there are mole powders and pastes you can find online and in specialty shops to get you to the next step: slowly and thoroughly combining the ingredients with the stock and simmering until the desired thickness is achieved—another mole variable that depends on the type of mole and the person who is making it.
It’s Your Turn
When Luis cooked lunch for the East Fork staff, one of the dishes he made was amarillo de pollo, a chicken dish with yellow mole. He shared the recipe with us, and it is another easy to make and/or make plant-based option. Many of the ingredients, like green beans, fingerling potatoes and Roma tomatoes can be found in any supermarket but we highly recommend a trip to the Mexican grocery store, if you have one nearby, for the guajillo and ancho chilies and the chayote. If all else fails, use what you find: other chilies or for the chayote, some zucchini.
This bright-tasting mole relies on raw jalapeños and is enjoyed like a stew. It’s hearty and perfect for a cold night; the masa transforms the texture into a chowder-like experience. This is the mole recipe that I recommend if you are looking to make a plant-based mole because the chicken stock can be easily substituted for a vegetable stock. It will be just as satisfying, if not better.
For the Chicken
1 whole chicken (about 2 pounds/1 kg), butchered into eight pieces
3 cloves garlic
¼ white onion
2 hojas santa leaves
For the Mole
6 guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
2 ancho chiles, seeded and stems removed
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
10 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1 onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 chayote, quartered
8 ounces (225 g) green beans, trimmed
8 fingerling potatoes (or 4 medium potatoes, quartered)
4¼ ounces (120 g) fresh masa
3 medium Roma tomatoes, halved
3 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
In a large stockpot over high heat, combine the chicken, garlic cloves, onion, and salt with 8 cups (2 L) of water. Bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to medium, and cook until the chicken is tender and fully cooked. This will take about 45 minutes. Remove the chicken, garlic, and onion from the pot. Reserve the chicken in a bowl. Discard the garlic and onion and add the hoja santa leaves to the broth in the stockpot.
In a saucepan, bring 4 cups (960 ml) of water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat a comal or a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When hot, briefly toast the chiles for a minute or two until aromatic. Set aside.
In the same hot comal over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds, peppercorns, and cloves for just a couple of minutes, until aromatic, and set aside. Next, add the onion and garlic, respectively, until each is charred a bit, about 7 minutes. Set aside when done as well.
When the water is boiling, remove from the heat and add the toasted chiles. Let sit for 20 minutes or until the chiles are tender and completely rehydrated.
Fill a separate pot with water and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Cook the chayote, green beans, and potatoes until tender. This should take about 40 minutes. When the vegetables are tender, remove from the water and set aside.
In a blender, blend 1 cup (240 ml) of water and the masa until smooth. Strain the mixture through a double-fine-mesh strainer and into the pot filled with chicken stock. Turn on the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent any masa from sticking to the pan.
In the blender, add the tomatoes, tomatillos, toasted onion, toasted garlic, and the softened chiles. Blend until smooth. Pass through a double-fine-mesh strainer and pour into the simmering pot of chicken broth. Stir for 5 minutes.
In a molcajete or spice grinder, grind the cumin, peppercorns, and cloves until finely ground. Add this spice mix to the pot and simmer the mole for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Lower the heat and return the cooked vegetables and chicken to the pot. Keep simmering for an additional 5 minutes until the chicken is warmed through. Serve in bowls and accompany with tortillas.
Thank you for the cultural note, very interesting and enjoyable reading, and I get inspiration for try Luis delicious plates! Best!
I have been to Oxaca probably 8 times. Can’t wait to go back. Yes, love the moles—all of them. Thanks for your version from scratch.
This is a fabulous story, even more so because it includes recipes! Many thanks for sharing a taste of (imho) Mexico’s greatest cuisine. And that’s some fine plating there as well!