Mexican mole secrets finally spilled
Before I went to Oaxaca, I had only a superficial knowledge of its regional cuisine. I’d heard whispers from other Mexico-savvy pals about a mysterious chocolate sauce called mole (MO-lay), but it never even occurred to me to try to replicate the legendary dish until I spent a few glorious months in southern Mexico. With the help of a local chef, I learned the real method for making mole.
The city of Oaxaca (located in the state of the same name) is nestled in a valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The regional cuisine is a dazzling mix of queso (cheese) Oaxaca, tamales, handmade tortillas, and spicy salsas, and dates back to the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples who farmed, cooked, and lived there long before European contact.
Soon after arriving in Mexico, I had my first taste of Oaxacan mole at a hole-in-the-wall café and was smitten. When I tried to replicate it in my own rented digs, I realized that making mole isn’t at all romantic-it’s more like cramming for an exam.
There are seven types of mole served in Oaxaca. Of the seven, mole negro is the king. The origins of mole are disputed. Some claim it was prepared in the pre-Hispanic courts, while others say it was invented by nuns in the colonial city of Puebla to celebrate a visiting official’s visit. It’s now a staple of Mexican cuisine, and the traditional dish of the Day of the Dead.
Mole is difficult to make because of its long list of ingredients (many of them unique to the region), its lengthy preparation time, and the hours of stirring over an open fire in a traditional ceramic cooking dish called a comal.
I was in Mexico with my partner, Grant, in a bid to escape the harsh Saskatchewan winter. Oaxaca was lovely, and we stayed on for three months to savour the food and colonial architecture. I blame our expat neighbour Kate for indoctrinating me into her oddball and somewhat obsessive Sisters of the Mole cooking club. Within days of our first meeting when we took up residence in the same mescal plantation, the former Torontonian pressed Susana Trilling’s classic encyclopedia of Oaxacan cuisine into my hands. When I told her I loved to cook, she practically dared me to try the complicated mole negro recipe. “Damn that Trilling. She kept me up till midnight one night, hunched over my comal trying to complete her recipe,” laughed Kate.
After thumbing through Trilling’s Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey Through Oaxaca, Mexico, I knew I was out of my depth. Unable to wait patiently for her popular daylong cooking class, I arranged a mole negro lesson with another chef and invited Kate along.
Our teacher, Horacio Reyes Sanchez, wasn’t just a native Oaxacan; he was the head chef at Hotel Hacienda Los Laureles in San Felipe del Agua, just outside Oaxaca. To get the complete picture of mole negro, from start to finish, Chef Horacio suggested we tour his favourite markets beforehand.
Did I mention that my market Spanish and Chef Horacio’s English were about on par? As we drove to the market, I listened intently as he gave me a short history of Oaxacan cuisine in very rapid Spanish, and told me how his mother, who learned the skill from her mother, taught him to make mole. Just as his history lesson started to sink in, Kate hit the accelerator hard and I lost my train of thought. Mole may be slow to prepare, but the route to the market is frantic.
The first place we visit, Mercado Juárez, is abuzz with activity-it’s the centre of community life in Oaxaca. Indigenous women sit strategically in the doorway of the market, selling fresh handmade tortillas, which are stacked as high as their waists in blue plastic bags. A narrow hallway leads to a larger open area filled with every conceivable food. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s face adorns the recycled shopping bags hanging in the market stalls.
Mercado Juárez is a great source for mole ingredients like dried chihuacle negro chilies and pasilla chilies. Mole negro’s other ingredients include red and green tomatoes, chocolate sauce, onions, nuts, egg bread, garlic, chicken consommé, dates, raisins, oregano, thyme, cloves, black peppercorns, salt, plantain, and sesame seeds.
Chef Horacio marches around the market in his crisp white chef’s jacket and dress pants, stopping briefly to show me the pasilla chilies. He greets everyone with a big smile, just like Al Waxman’s affable character in King of Kensington. This is the best way to go to the market in Oaxaca-not as a tourist, but as part of a chef’s entourage.
Our next stop is a store called Chocolate Mayordomo. Chocolate, which originated in Mexico and Central America, is the primary ingredient in mole negro and mole coloradito. The rustic store smells of spices and burnt chocolate. Chef Horacio orders up his personal mix: almonds, cinnamon, and roasted cocoa beans. Using antique grinders, the staff grind these items into a fresh, fluid, dark chocolate sauce right before our eyes.
With chocolate mix in hand, it’s time to head back to Hotel Hacienda Los Laureles to cook. We are greeted with a banquet fit for a king, laid out near some lovely pine trees in the hotel’s garden. The numerous other ingredients for mole negro are spread out before us on long white tables. An open fire is lit, and a comal is placed over it.
Chef Horacio roasts the chilies, tomatoes, nuts, and spices in the outdoor comal for about 20 minutes. Then we join him inside in the modern kitchen, where he blends the roasted ingredients and chocolate sauce together in a food processor. Then it’s back outside to heat the mole mixture and a consommé in the comal for another hour or two, while stirring constantly.
When Chef Horacio finally offers up his velvety sauce, served over grilled chicken breasts, prepared especially for me and Kate, the unique combination of textures and flavours is simply spectacular. The secret to a good mole, he says, is fresh ingredients and patience. You have to be willing to stand and stir for two hours to get a smooth sauce. Now that I’ve seen just how difficult it is to make a good mole, I’m tempted to toss aside my amateur recipe jottings and eat at a chef’s table every night.
Access: Mercado Juárez is Oaxaca’s original town market. It covers an entire block, and is located near the zócalo (central square). For serious mole seekers, the most popular cooking school in the region is Seasons of My Heart (www.seasonsofmyheart.com/ ), located just north of the city in the Etla Valley. Most of the chefs in Oaxaca are receptive to giving lessons. For a lesson with Chef Horacio at the Hotel Hacienda Los Laureles (www.hotelhaciendaloslaureles.com/), you must speak intermediate Spanish as he doesn’t speak much English. Call hotel owner Peter Kaiser to make arrangements, at 1-800-728-9098.