Deliciously complicated: Mole, the Mexican dish that has many variations and each equally good
There’s little that rattles the intrepid home cooks of 2018. Well-versed in world flavors and armed with the knowledge of 1,001 digital voices, today’s kitchen warriors don’t stop at Julia Child’s famously laborious beef Bourguignon. “Give me a real challenge,” one imagines them saying. Give me towers of croquembouche wrapped in spindly sugar webbing; day-long smoked pork butt lovingly basted every hour on the hour; and boulangerie-worthy bread baked with flour milled in my very own kitchen. The more steps, the better.
And yet, when it comes to one of the most challenging of Mexican dishes—mole, the complexly spiced and intricately prepared family of sauces dating from pre-Hispanic times—many voices go silent.
“Most people still don’t know what it is,” says Lesley Tellez, author of the Eat Mexico cookbook (Kyle Books, 2015) and owner of a Mexico City-based culinary tour business of the same name. North of the border, she says, well-meaning cooks often have the misperception that mole is a too-sweet chocolate sauce or a single dish with an inalterable recipe. Both couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“We’re talking about a whole universe of mole that exists in Mexico,” she explains as we tour the famous Mercado La Merced. “If you go to any city or even better, any rural town, [the] mole will be different from the mole two towns over.” Mexican cuisine is highly regional, she continues, influenced by the ingredients and traditions local to each place. Two moles that look identical may taste completely different, perhaps the result of a small tweak.
“People often talk about the seven moles of Oaxaca, but even in Oaxaca there’s more than seven,” Tellez says. “Anyone from Oaxaca could tell you that!”
What almost all moles have in common is this: a base of dried chiles ground with spices to form a paste or powder. That base is then blended with water or stock to create a velvety sauce, perfect for draping over meat, enchiladas, or some other conveyance. Despite its variations—the type of chile, whether that chile and its seeds are roasted or not, any additional spices, and the texture and thickness of the resulting sauce—the mole always remains the star of the dish, rather than whatever’s stashed underneath.
Mole is famously presented only with fresh tortillas as accompaniment at Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s ritzy tasting-menu spot in the capital’s swanky Polanco neighborhood. In his book, Mexico From the Inside Out (Phaidon Press, 2015), Olvera waxes poetic on the subject. Similar to the idea of a “mother dough” in baking, his “mole madre” is made with a base of old mole. The result is a mole of startling complexity, with a history you can taste.
“We’ve come to think of our mole madre as a living and breathing being; it speaks and even moves,” Olvera writes. “We’re thrilled to observe its changing moods or tone of voice: we can tell when it’s enlivened or exhausted, when it needs something, and when it wants to be left alone.”
“I don’t think we’re used to thinking about our food that way,” Tellez says. “We like a juicy steak and perfectly cooked piece of fish. But the sauce being the dish? It’s, like, ‘huh?’ And because there are so many ways to do it, people are scared.” And no, not all mole is made with chocolate.
Given that vastness of mole’s universe, how does one even begin to understand it? By tasting, Tellez says. And by getting to know varieties of mole with the understanding that someday and somewhere, someone will tell you that everything you know is wrong.
“Everybody thinks the best mole is their grandmother’s mole, and that’s the only way to make mole,” Tellez admits. “People have very strong feelings.”
With that in mind, here’s a quick primer on several varieties of mole from across Mexico.
Perhaps the best-known mole in the U.S., mole poblano is most popular in the Mexican state of Puebla. Deep brown in color, mole poblano is thick, savory, and made with upward of 20 ingredients. It leans less on chocolate and more on several varieties of chile—often ancho, guajillo, pasilla, and mulato—as well as dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. Warming spices such as cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and anise also make appearances, lending this mole an earthy, sweet flavor profile.
Sweet-savory Mexican chocolate is the focus of this complex mole, which, in addition to smoky brown chilhuacle chiles, gives this mole its almost-black hue. It’s sometimes thickened with bread or plantains. Oaxaca is famous for its versions, at times enriched with the licorice-flavored herb, hoja santa.
Where mole negro is dark, Oaxacan mole blanco is light: Skinless peanuts and almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, and pine nuts, all lightly roasted, are common ingredients, as is white onion, garlic, and the yellow güero chile.
Almonds are the central appeal of this creamy, light- to deep-brown mole, though it’s often supplemented with peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more. It’s a specialty of San Pedro Atocpan, a community in Mexico City’s southern Milpa Alta borough, where ingredient lists can stretch toward 30 disparate items.
Mole verde, popular in Oaxaca, is bright and herbaceous, thanks to fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, lettuce, radish greens, and chard, plus tomatillos and verdant serrano chiles. It’s one of the simplest moles to prepare because it doesn’t need to simmer for hours on end.
Intensely fruity, deep-red mole manchamanteles calls on such sweet ingredients as fresh pineapple, apple, plantains, and yams. Hailing from Oaxaca, mole manchamanteles translates to “mole that stains the tablecloth,” which should serve as a warning.