The Aztecs called it “molli” or “mulli”. In their Náhuatl language, it simply meant sauce or mixture. For the Spaniards, who encountered it in its countless versions in the cooking pots of the great market place of Tenochtitlán, it became “mole”, the name which it still bears today. Sauce and mixture however are totally inadequate words when it comes to illustrating one of Mexico’s most fascinating and historical gastronomic stars.
A Mexican mole is almost impossible to describe or explain, because it is so multi-faceted and because the word can portray so many diverse culinary creations. In its most uncomplicated form, it is just a “sauce” – think of “guacamole”, a “mole de aguacate”, a sauce of avocado. At its most convoluted and fancy, it is an extraordinary concoction of infinite complexity, featuring meat or fish, vegetables, spices, nuts and chillies, fresh or dried – some moles require 25 to 30 ingredients; the famous “Mole Poblano”, which has achieved unfair notoriety as a “chilli and chocolate sauce”, is an excellent example. In between these two types of “mole” can be found a huge range of regional, even local, moles which bear no resemblance whatsoever to each other: different ingredients, different cooking methods, different approaches, different interpretations, different textures - from thick and jammy to light and soupy. There will always be chillies and probably tomatoes and tomatillos. There may sometimes be chocolate, piloncillo sugar and spices, but a mole is invariably unpredictable.
While Puebla’s great Mole Poblano is perhaps the best known outside Mexico, other states can boast equally magnificent dishes: Oaxaca for instance is fêted as the Land of the Seven Moles, which come in an array of colours: black, red, yellow, green. The Mole de Xico from Veracruz is sultry and tropical, while Guanajuato’s “mole verde” is fresh and bright with green leaves, tomatillos and serrano chillies. Beyond the regional celebrities however are the moles typical of each village and community, of each strip of coastline and valley, of each cook and family.
The moles bubbling in the pots of the Aztecs would obviously have been based entirely on indigenous produce but the foreign ingredients which found their way to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest play an important part in Mole’s development into its many modern day versions. Spices such as black pepper, cumin and cinnamon, which were transported to Mexico aboard the great Spanish galleons, have become essential components of many moles, as have almonds and sesame seeds which joined the native nuts and seeds as a thickening agent. Frying the individual components of a mole is also a post-Hispanic cooking method, as the pig and its rich, tasty lard was a Spanish contribution to the Mexican larder. The toasting of the chillies and the grinding together of the many constituents of the mole, however, are very Mexican and would have originally been done on the lava rock “metate” or grinding stone or in the “molcajete”, mortar, which were so much part of the indigenous kitchen.
Mole is regarded almost as Mexico’s national dish but I very seldom eat it in Mexico, as I am invariably disappointed by the moles served in most restaurants. And there is a simple reason for this: a real, proper Mexican mole, the festive 30-ingredient kind, is light years away from 21st century fast food; the list of ingredients is long, the instructions seem endless and just looking at a recipe can make one feel exhausted and washed out – and because the preparation is so time-consuming, moles are looked upon as fiesta and special occasion dishes. The women of the house make mole for weddings and christenings, for celebrations, for a coming of age, for the times when there is reason to rejoice. Restaurant moles on the other hand tend to be alternately sweet and sickly, bitter, sometimes with no flavour other than searing heat, and invariably lukewarm; they are aimed at tourists and made with commercial mole pastes, and they cannot possibly compare to a mole made at home, from scratch, with all the right ingredients.
Mole cookery requires a specific frame of mind, which is normally only available to me at weekends – it is a leisure activity, not to be entered into unless one is relaxed, with plenty of time available, and prepared to be fascinated and enthralled. In these circumstances, one is free to be drawn into the mystery and sorcery of an authentic mole, and the glory of its rich complexity of spice, fruitiness, bitter sweetness, underlying earthiness; and one can witness sheer alchemy, as seemingly totally disparate ingredients gradually fuse into a harmonious, balanced and indescribably delicious whole. Step by step, the flavours build up: the specific combination of chillies, the nuts and seeds, the spices, the herbs and vegetables, the sugar and chocolate depending on the region. It is a spellbinding process and one on which it is well worth spending the time and effort.
Chilli and Chocolate Stars of the Mexican Cocina by Isabel Hood is available from Amazon.co.uk
Just The Two of Us Entertaining Each Other by Isabel Hood is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk