Mole (pronounced moe-lay) comes from the Nahuatl word mōlli (sauce) or chīlmōlli (chile sauce). There are some misconceptions here that mole is only the brown chocolate sauce that in Mexico is called mole poblano. As you will see, mole comes in quite a variety of delicious flavors, all of which have chiles rather than chocolate as the common ingredient.
There are several legends about the origin of mole. One is that the nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa is Puebla were in a lather about the visit of the archbishop. They rustled up what ingredients they had on hand and dumped it all in a pot to simmer. They killed the old turkey wandering around the yard too. When the archbishop arrived, they served poor ol’ Tom turkey smothered in the sauce made from leftovers. When asked, the nuns declared that they had made “mole” (a mix).
Then there is the legend that the monk Fray Pascual invented the dish, again to serve to the archbishop, or maybe it was the viceroy, there seem to be several versions. While the monk was preparing the meal, a sudden wind knocked over the spices into the pots where the turkey was simmering magically creating mole.
I say, poppycock! Mole predates the Spanish invasion in Mexico. Bernardino de Sahagun writes about mollis being used in a number of indigenous dishes in his work General History of the Things of New Spain. A popular Aztec dishes of the time was the totolmolli (turkey hen or chicken in mole sauce).
Where doubt sets in is in the use of chocolate in the sauce. Both the Aztecs and Mayans considered chocolate sacred. Therefore, it was reserved for the highest level priests and royalty. Thus, to include chocolate in a dish for the common people would have been considered sacrilege. That doesn’t mean that there were NO sauces with chocolate, only that they were not served to those who were not priests or royalty. (See Chocolate) Perhaps Cortes was fortunate enough to be served chocolate mole as he was considered a reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl and the recipe got out. We may never know.
Up until recently, mole was the standard dish eaten at celebrations of all social economic classes in Mexico. The expressions Ir a un mole (to go to where there is mole) means to attend a wedding, one of the traditional ceremonies that customarily served mole. Nowadays, the upper classes have stopped preparing and eating it, preferring imported foodstuff to traditional at their parties. This is yet another loss in the ongoing processes of colonization. Language, food, and customs are insidiously being replaced. Women no longer learn the art of cooking mole from their mothers. Mothers no longer teach their daughters.
In a few remaining places, the preparation of mole is still a community event, usually in honor of a patron saint or local holiday. In these communities, each person involved has a part to play in the production, much like the tamaladas that gather to make tamales (See Tamales). There is always one person, usually a woman, who is given the honorary position of molera, the head chef. It is she who makes the final determination on how much of each ingredient is to be used.
That is no easy task. Mole poblano has about 20 different ingredients. Oaxacan moles can have more than 30. Recipes are approximate, variations are practically limitless. But, under the direction of the molera, the ritual of the mole is not lost.
In general, when making mole:
Mole ingredients can be classified into 4 distinct groups–the chiles, sour ingredients (like tomatillos), sweet ingredients (like fruit and sugar) and thickeners (nuts or tortillas). Ingredients are roasted and ground into a powder or paste. This is mixed with water or broth and simmered while being stirred constantly until it thickens. Chocolate, if included, is added at the end of the cooking process. It’s always served over something, meat, poultry, eggs or rice.
It’s important that those making mole not become angry, otherwise the mole will boil over or spoil.
The paste or powder can be prepared separately and often can be purchased to reduce the steps in making this unique dish. Interestingly enough, these powders have such a strong scent that they have been registered as explosives at the Mexico City airport. This strong flavoring is the basis of the expression “en su mero mole.” Mole is an acquired taste and to be in your own mole, is similar to the English expression to be or not to be one’s cup of tea.
Below, I’ve provided a link to recipes of a number of mole sauces.
Moles with chocolate
Mole poblano is the most well-known mole. It is considered one of the national dishes of Mexico. It is often served with turkey when prepared for weddings, birthdays and baptisms. During the Christmas holiday season, it is often served over shrimp garnished with rosemary.
Mole coloradito is made to be served over pork, chicken or beef and it is a red brick color. It is a specialty of Oaxaca.
Mole negro also known as mole oaxaqueño is one of 7 distinctive types of mole made in Oaxaca. Mole negro is served with chicken, turkey or pig head. It has up to 34 ingredients and 6 types of chiles. It also has bananas, gingerbread, almonds, peanuts, avocado leaf, cinnamon and chocolate among other ingredients.
Moles without chocolate
Huaxmole, also known as guaxmole or mole de guaje is made with guaje seeds, also known as huaxin, cacalas or cascalhuite, which taste like garlic. It was traditionally prepared for holy day festivals and served over goat meat.
Mole de caderas also known as mole de chivo is a specialty of the states Oaxaca and Puebla. It is meant to be served over goats that have been fed large quantities of salt, giving the meat a distinctive flavor. It is traditionally prepared during the annual goat butchering festival, usually sometime between October and December. During the festival, there is a “danza de la matanza” which ends with the sacrificial killing of a male goat. There is also an altar prepared by the butchers who make offerings and prayers so that the goat harvest is at least as good as if not better than the previous year.
Mole Michoacan. This red mole is prepared with pumpkin seeds and they must not have shell nor salt so the final flavor is not altered and is a speciality of Michoacan.
Mole chichilo from Oaxaca is served with beef and comes in negro (black) and rojo (red) depending on the manner the chiles are prepared. Of the seven specialty moles of Oaxaca, mole rojo is the spices.
Mole prieto, also known as tlilmolli, comes from the state of Tlaxcala. It has traditionally been part of the ritual festivity in honor of the goddess Toci, patron saint of textiles and health. It prehispanic rituals, this mole was served with deer, turkey or Xoloitzcuintle, a Mexican hairless dog bred specifically for food. Nowadays, it is served with pork. During the pre-festival preparations, a bottle of liquor is buried and a cross made of nopales and chilpotle is placed over the spot. This is done to prevent the mole from boiling and spoiling.
Mole verde, yet another mole from Oaxaca, uses green tomatoes, parsley, and green chiles to give it its distinctive herb flavoring. It’s often served over chicken with chayote, green beans, and white beans.
Mole tamaulipeco, from the state of Tamaulipas, is served over chicken stuffed with olives. Ingredients include onion, garlic, olives, raisin, tomato, tomatillo, cinnamon, thyme, parsley and capers among others. It’s often served with white rice with chiles and carrots in vinegar.
Mole de olla is more of a soup rather than a sauce. It is made of xoconostle, squash, green beans, corn, potato, chambarete (beef shank) simmered into a broth of chile guajillo and chile pasilla, seasoned with garlic, onion, and epazote. It is served with pieces of chopped serrano pepper and lemon.
Mole de panza is cow stomach stew, also known as menudo. Mole de panza uses cilantro rather than oregano as seasoning.
Remember to “parece ajonjolí de todos los moles” be like the sesame seed of all moles, involved in everything!