Place of origin
Mole (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈmole]; Spanish, from Nahuatl mōlli, "sauce") is the generic name for a number of sauces originally used in Mexican cuisine, as well as for dishes based on these sauces. Outside of Mexico, it often refers specifically to mole poblano. In contemporary Mexico, the term is used for a number of sauces, some quite dissimilar, including black, red, yellow, Colorado (another name for red), green, almendrado, and pipián. The sauce is most popular in the central and southern regions of the country with those from Puebla and Oaxaca the best known, but 60% of the mole eaten in the country comes from San Pedro Atocpan near Mexico City. The popularity of the sauce, especially at major celebrations, is such that 99% of all Mexicans have tried at least one version of it.
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. However, the classic mole version is the variety called mole poblano, which is a dark red or brown sauce served over meat. 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.
A common legend of its creation takes place at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla 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, including chili peppers, spices, day-old bread, nuts, and a little chocolate. They killed an old turkey, cooked it and put the sauce on top; the archbishop loved it, when the nun was asked the name of the dish, she replied, "I made a Mole". Mole was the ancient word for mix, now this word mostly refers to the dish, and rarely is used to signify other kinds of mix in Spanish .
A similar version of the story says that monk Fray Pascual invented the dish, again to serve the archbishop of Puebla. In this version, spices were knocked over or blown over into pots in which turkeys were cooking. Other versions of the story substitute the viceroy of New Spain, such as Juan de Palafox y Mendoza in place of the archbishop.
Modern mole is a mixture of ingredients from North America, Europe and Africa, making it the first international dish created in the Americas. Its base, however, is indigenous. Nahuatl speakers had a preparation they called mōlli ([ˈmoːlːi]), meaning sauce, or chīlmōlli ([t͡ʃiːlˈmoːlːi]) for chili sauce. In the book General History of the Things of New Spain, Bernardino de Sahagún says that mollis 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 molli 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 seeds, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, cilantro, seedless grapes, plantains, garlic, onion, cinnamon, chocolate. 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. The Nahuatl origin of the name probably defines its Mesoamerican origin......
Preparation and consumption
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 (Leucaena leucocephala), 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 roasted and ground into a fine powder or paste. This roasting and grinding process is extremely laborious and takes at least a day to accomplish by hand. 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. Many families have their own varieties of mole passed down for generations, with their preparation 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 ([kaˈswela]) or a thick heavy clay cauldron and stirred almost constantly to prevent burning. The 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. Mole poblano is most traditionally served with turkey, but it and many others are served with chicken and some with pork.
A number of mole powders and pastes can be prepared ahead of time and sold, such as mole poblano, mole negro and mole colorado. Many markets in Mexico sell mole pastes and powders in packages or by the kilogram. 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 it 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 and enchiladas (often called enmoladas) or over eggs at brunch.
The term mole is most often associated with thick, dark, brownish-red sauces, but the term is really more general than that. Mole can be anything from dark and thick to soup-like and bright green, with red, yellow and black moles each claiming fans in different regions.
|Mole Poblano Nutrition Facts|
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||2,389 kJ (571 kcal)|
|Vitamin A||15 IU|
|Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Mole poblano is the best known of all mole varieties and has been ranked as number one of "typical" Mexican dishes. It has also been called the "national dish" of Mexico. The state of Puebla is identified with mole poblano.
Mole poblano contains about 20 ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate, which works to counteract the heat of the chili peppers, but the chocolate does not dominate. It helps give the sauce its dark color, but this is also provided by the mulato peppers. This sauce is most often served over turkey at weddings, birthdays and baptisms, or at Christmas with romero over shrimp cakes. Another time when the sauce is prominent is Cinco de Mayo. While this holiday is not celebrated much in the rest of Mexico, it is a major celebration in Puebla.
The state of Oaxaca is large and very mountainous with various indigenous ethnicities and microclimates, making for a number of regional variations in the food. The state is called "the land of the seven moles", with these being named mole negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles (or tablecloth stainer), all differently colored and flavored, based on the use of distinctive chilis and herbs. The last, mancha manteles, is really a chicken and fruit stew, and although Oaxaca claims its as the seventh mole, some, such as Susan Trilling in her book My Search for the Seventh Mole: A Story with Recipes from Oaxaca, Mexico, question whether it is a true mole. In addition, those from Puebla claim this dish as their own.
The best known of Oaxaca's moles is mole negro, which is darker than mole poblano and just as thick and rich. It also includes chocolate, as well as chili peppers, onions, garlic and more, but what makes it distinct is the addition of a plant called hoja santa. It is the most complex and difficult to make of the sauces. Mole coloradito is another popular preparation, often simplified and sold as an enchilada sauce. Mole verde is always made fresh with herbs native to the region.
San Pedro Atocpan
Until the mid-20th century, San Pedro Atocpan, located in the mountains south of Mexico City proper (but still part of the Federal District) was similar to the other agricultural communities surrounding it, growing corn, fava beans and nopales (prickly pear cactus). Electricity and other modern conveniences arrived late, allowing the community to retain more of its traditions later. In 1940, Father Damian Sartes San Roman came to the parish of San Pedro Atocpan and saw the potential in marketing the product to raise living standards in the area. At that time, only four neighborhoods prepared mole for town festivals: Panchimalco, Ocotitla, Nuztla and Tula, but those who prepared it were generally prominent women in their communities. In the 1940s, one family made the long trek to Mexico City proper to sell some of their mole at the La Merced Market. It was successful, but they brought with them only two kilograms since it was made by hand grinding the ingredients on a metate. The arrival of electricity in the late 1940s made the use of a powered mill possible, and better roads made the trek to the city easier. Some of these mills were bought or financed by Father Sartes, but the mole was still cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire. In the 1970s, he was part of a small group which became a cooperative, which constructed the Las Cazuelas restaurant. This is where the first Mole Exhibition was held in 1978.
The care and tradition that went into the moles from there made them popular and made the town famous in the Mexico City area. Today, San Pedro Atocpan produces 60% of the moles consumed in Mexico and 89% of the moles consumed in Mexico City, with a total estimated production of between 28,000 and 30,000 tons each year. Ninety-two percent of the town's population makes a living preparing mole powders and pastes, all in family businesses. Prices for mole run between 80 and 160 pesos per kilogram, depending on the maker and the type. A number of moles are made in the town, but mole almendrado (mole with almonds) is signature to the area. Producers in Atocpan have their own versions of the various types of mole, often keeping recipes strictly secret. The production in the town has become very competitive, especially in quality. Twenty two brands are permitted to print "Made in San Pedro Atocpan" on their labels.
Various types of mole sauces can be found throughout the center of Mexico toward the south. There is the mole amarillito of the southeast, the mole coloradito of the Valley of Mexico (as opposed to the mole of the same name in Oaxaca), the mole prieto of Tlaxcala, mole ranchero from Morelos, and more. Taxco has a pink version of mole, called mole rosa. The spiciness of this version is very mild. The word guacamole (avocado sauce) is derived from "guaca" (from “aguacate” or avocado) and the word mole.
Pipian is a type of mole which mostly consists of ground squash seeds. It does not contain chocolate, but generally contains tomatillos, hoja santa, chili peppers, garlic and onion to give it a green hue. There is also a red version which combines the squash seeds with peanuts, red jalapeños or chipotle and sesame seeds. Like other moles, it is cooked with broth and then served with poultry and pork, and sometimes with fish or vegetables.
Mole verde can refer to a number of different sauces that all finished with a green color. Most of these must be made fresh and not from a mix, as they require a number of fresh herbs and other ingredients. Another version comes from Veracruz, where pork is covered in a sauce made from ground peanuts, tomatillos and cilantro, with the last two giving the sauce its green color.
While not moles in the classic sense, there are some dishes that use the term in their name. Mole de olla is a stew made with beef and vegetables which contains guajillo and ancho chiles as well as number of other ingredients found in moles. Huatzmole is a mole sauce variation which is soupy, often served over goat meat (cabrito).
In Guatemala, mole is a dessert sauce made with chocolate, dried chillis, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds. It is often poured over fried plantains, and is served with sesame seeds on top.
Mole is one of the most representative dishes of Mexico, especially for major celebrations. Ninety-nine percent of Mexicans have tried at least one type of mole. The dish enjoys its greatest popularity in central and southern Mexico, but simpler versions of mole poblano did make their way north. However, northern versions are far less complex and generally used to make enchiladas.
The consumption of mole is strongly associated with celebrations. In Mexico, to say "to go to a mole" (ir a un mole) means to go to a wedding. 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".
To promote their regional versions of the sauce, a number of places host festivals dedicated to it. The Feria Nacional del Mole (National Festival of Mole) was begun in 1977 in San Pedro Atocpan, and is held each year in October. It began outside the town, in the small community of Yenhuitlalpan, in May. The four restaurants there decided to take advantage of the festival of the Señor de las Misericordias (Lord of the Mercies) to promote their moles. Despite their success, a number in the village did not like that they were using a religious festival for commercial ends, so a separate mole festival was created for October. Today, 37 restaurants and mole producers participate in the event. The most popular variety is the mole almendrado. Originally, the October version of the fair was held in the town proper, but after it became too big, it was moved to prepared fairgrounds outside along the highway.
The city of Puebla also holds an annual mole festival, whose proceeds are shared among the Santa Rosa, Santa Inés and Santa Catarina convents. The world's record for largest pot of mole was broken at the city's 2005 festival. The pot was 1.4 meters in diameter at the base, 1.9 meters high, with a diameter of 2.5 meters at the top. Four hundred people participated in its preparation, using 800 kilos of mole paste, 2,500 kilos of chicken, 500 kilos of tortillas and 1,600 kilos of broth. The resulting food fed 11,000 people.
The women of Santa María Magdalena in Querétaro have been locally known for their mole for about 100 years. In 1993, they decided to hold a contest for the best mole. This was the beginning of the Feria del Mole y Tortilla (Mole and Tortilla Festival), which has been held every year since then. It still features a mole cook-off and attracts hundreds of visitors from the state. The community of Coatepec de Morelos in the municipality of Zitácuaro, Michoacán holds an annual Feria de Mole in April.
Despite its popularity within Mexico, mole is relatively unknown outside the country, even in the United States, where Mexican food is readily available. Chicago has an annual mole festival for Mexican immigrants at the Universidad Popular community center. The event is a cooking contest which had over 40 entries, with the winner taking away US$500. Several brands of mole paste are available in the United States and can be found online.
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. According to one survey of upper-class housewives between 30 and 50 years of age, 95% had never cooked it from scratch. They had only eaten it at home at their children's requests after hearing about it. This is in contrast to their mothers and grandmothers for whom mole symbolized being Mexican. The dish is being less seen in the traditional celebrations, as well. The problem is that those in this stratum of society have come to prefer foreign foods. The owners of La California, a mole producer in Guanajuato, state it is harder to market regional mole in Mexico than in the exterior. They say that 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. Some people, such as Lula Bertrán of the Círculo Mexicano de Arte Culinario, see this as a warning sign for the dish.
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