Mole [moh-ley] (from the Aztec word for ‘sauce’) is the generic name for a number of sauces used in Mexican cuisine, as well as for dishes based on these sauces. Outside of Mexico, it often refers to a specific sauce which is known in Spanish by the more specific name ‘mole poblano.’ In contemporary Mexico, the term is used for a number of sauces, some quite dissimilar to one another, including black, red, yellow, colorado, green, almendrado, and pipián. The sauce is most popular in the central and southern regions of the country, but eaten nationwide, particularly during celebrations.
In Mexico, to say ‘to go to a mole’ (‘ir a un mole’) means to go to a wedding. Three states in Mexico claim to be the origin of mole, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Tlaxcala. The states with the best known moles are Puebla and Oaxaca, but other regions in Mexico also make various types of mole sauces. Moles come in various flavors and ingredients, with chili peppers as the common factor. A classic mole poblano is a dark red or brown sauce served over meat. Mole has a strong flavor, especially the dark ones, and is considered to be an acquired taste for most. This has spawned another saying, ‘en su mero mole,’ which means something like ‘one’s cup of tea.’
The dish has become a culinary symbol of Mexico’s ‘mestizaje,’ or mixed indigenous and European heritage, both for the types of ingredients it contains as well as the legends surrounding its origin. The most common version of the legend takes place at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla sometime early in the colonial period. Upon hearing that the archbishop was going to visit, the convent nuns went into a panic because they were poor and had almost nothing to prepare. The nuns prayed and brought together the little bits of what they did have, chili peppers, spices, day-old bread, nuts, and a little chocolate and more. They killed an old turkey they had, cooked it and put the sauce on top; and the archbishop loved it. A similar version has a monk by the name of Fray Pascual inventing the dish, again to serve the archbishop of Puebla. In this version, he knocks over or the wind blows a bunch of spices into pots in which turkeys are cooking.
Modern mole is a mixture of ingredients from three continents, North America, Europe, and Africa, making it the first international dish created in the Americas. Its base, however, is indigenous. Mesoamericans had a preparation they called ‘mulli.’ The word means ‘sauce’ in Nahuatl. In his book called the ‘General History of the Things of New Spain,’ Bernardino de Sahagún says that mullis were used in a number of dishes including those for fish, game, and vegetables. Theories about the origins of mole have supposed that it was something imposed upon the natives or that it was the product of the baroque artistry of Puebla, but there is not enough evidence for definitive answers.
While chili pepper sauces existed in pre-Hispanic Mexico, the complicated moles of today did not. They did not contain chocolate, which was used as a beverage, and in all of the writings of Sahagún, there is no mention at all of it being used to flavor food. Most likely what occurred was a gradual modification of the original mulli sauce, adding more and different ingredients depending on the location. This diversified the resulting sauces into various types. Ingredients that have been added into moles include nuts, peanuts, pine nuts, sesame seed, pumpkin and/or squash seeds, cilantro, seedless grapes, plantains, garlic, onion, cinnamon, chocolate, and more. What remained the same was the use of chili peppers, especially ancho, pasilla, mulato, and chipotle, and the consistency of the sauce. The true story of how mole developed may never be truly known as the first recipes did not appear until after the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. But the Nahuatl origin of the name probably defines its Mesoamerican origin.
All mole preparations begin with one or more types of chili pepper. The classic moles of central Mexico and Oaxaca, such as mole poblano and mole negro, include two or more of the following types: ancho, pasilla, mulato, and chipotle. Other ingredients can include black pepper, achiote, guaje, cumin, cloves, anise, tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, sesame seeds, dried fruit, hoja santa, and many others. Mole poblano has an average of 20 ingredients; mole almendrado has an average of 26, and Oaxacan moles can have over 30. Chocolate, if used, is added at the end of cooking. According to Rick Bayless, the ingredients of mole can be grouped into five distinct classes: chiles, sour (tomatillos), sweet (dried fruits and sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts and tortillas).
The ingredients are all roasted and ground into a fine powder or paste depending on the ingredients used. This roasting and grinding process is extremely laborious and if done by hand, takes at least a day. Traditionally, this work was shared by several generations of women in the family, but after the arrival of electric mills, it became more common to take the ingredients to be ground. Moles made in families are all different, as each has had its own varieties passed down for generations, with the making of it reserved for special events in large batches.
The resulting powder or paste is mixed with water, or more often broth, and simmered until it is pungent and very thick. It is most often prepared in a cazuela or a thick heavy clay caldron and stirred almost constantly to keep it from burning. This thickness of the sauce has prompted some, such as Mexican-food authority Patricia Quintana, to claim it is too substantial to be called a sauce. However, like a sauce, it is always served over something and never eaten alone. For mole poblano, the most traditional meat to serve it with is turkey, but it and many others are served with chicken and some with pork.
The labor-intensive part of mole is the toasting and grinding, with few people having time to do this anymore. Many markets in Mexico sell mole pastes and powders in packaged or by the kilo. These mole mixes are heavy with a strong odor, so much so that security agents at the Mexico City airport once admitted that mole can register a positive when they check for explosives. Prepared mole sauce will keep for about three days in the refrigerator, and freezes well. The paste will keep six months in the refrigerator and about a year in the freezer. However, leftover sauce is often used for the making of tamales, enchiladas (often called enmoladas), or over eggs at brunch.
While mole has traditionally been eaten by all levels of Mexican society, especially at celebrations, the upper classes have begun to stop preparing and consuming the dish. This stratum of society have come to prefer foreign foods. Many in Mexico do not consider it a gourmet product, or something that can be consumed with wine. In Mexico, the preferences of the upper classes often eventually are copied in the lower classes, as well. For some this as a warning sign for the dish.