At first glance mole has got to be one of the least asthetically appealing of Mexican foods. To an innocent bystander, Mole appears to be merely a chicken leg drowning in a pool of soupy brown liquid. However after that first bite, mole turns into something magical. And with each glorious bite thereafter it`s easy to see why Mexican abuelas and madres have been making the tedious and labor intensive sauce for generations.
Ingredients such as black pepper, cumin, cloves, anise, tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, sesame seeds, chipotle, dried fruit, and chocolate among others make up the rich and complex flavors in the rainbow of moles. And with dozens of different types of mole to try, you would live in Mexico for years before tasting them all. I, naturally was excited to sample my share when entering Oaxaca and Puebla, perhaps two of the most mole obsessed cities in all of Mexico–this excitement amplified by the fact that I had never tried.
My first taste
I wander around Oaxaca`s impressive food market for a good hour, debating whether I`ll finally try Mole or whether to let the alleyway of intensely delicious smelling carne asada tempt me. I finally end up settling on the comedor of a motherly woman with sparkly eye makeup and a floral apron–her preteen daughter alongside her, helping prep. I order mole negro–perhaps the most commonly found type of mole in Oaxaca. Two minutes later in front of me big Mama places a plate of the above-mentioned chicken thigh drowning in a pool of brown liquid, a side of fiesta rice, and the standard basket of fresh corn tortillas. I tear off a piece of chicken and dunk it in the thick brown sauce. At first taste I`m delighted by the creamy warmth of the sauce and the complexity of it`s flavor–hints of rich Oaxacan chocolate, mildly spicy chili peppers, onions, garlic and something I can`t quite put my finger on. This shouldnt surprise me as Mole negro is one of the most complex and difficult to make types of mole. I smother the rice in the rich sauce, and lick the chicken bones clean before using my tortilla to clean my plate. It`s a deeply satisfying meal.
Next comes Puebla
I`m barely in the stunningly beautiful streets of Puebla five minutes before a young local man strikes up conversation with me. I tell him I`m looking for a place for dinner, preferably one serving Poblano (ie Puebla) specialties. He insists on taking me to a favorite Poblano restaurant where I am able to try enchiladas mole in the company of a person who knows the city well. I tell him how I love mole and want to try as many variations as I can before I leave Mexico. He has a word with the waiter, who quickly heads into the kitchen only to come out a few seconds later with two bowls of warm sauce–one red, the other green. He places a basket of fresh bread and tortillas chips for tasting. I`m blown away by mole verde–the silky and subtle flavor of pumpkin seeds, green tomatos, pistacios, garlic, cilantro join in harmony to make the creamy, nutty, earthy and intensely comforting sauce. I use the bread to sop up every last drop. I can`t imagine how mole can get any better than this.
Next comes red–and though not nearly as amazing as green–is delicous and interesting in it`s own respect, with a strong tomato base complimented by hints of garlic, ancho chilis, chocolate, cinnamon and cloves. Warm, sweet and spicy. Mole rojo garners a more familar flavor–like the more intelligent version of a red enchilada sauce I had tried before.
The meal is made even more satisfying when my dining partner insists on paying for the rather pricy meal.
Yet another incredible Mole
On my final morning in Puebla I head off with one goal in mind–to find a lunch of mole poblano. I decide on a small hole-in-the-wall place with a title containing the word Abuela (grandma), which is always a good sign for an excellent meal. Even better–mole poblano is on the menu of the day–and with a bowl of soup, is just $55 pesos ($4.50). This beats all the other restaurants I had passed with $90-120 pesos price tags on the dish. Quickly after finishing a pleasant bowl of cream of broccoli soup, paired with a surprisingly delicous roll, I`m presented with a familiar sight–a chicken leg doused in brown sauce. I ask for tortillas—my favorite tool for eating mole–and get to work. I quickly learn that I love mole poblano even more than mole negro.
The flavors and ingredients in the sauce to seem to compete with eachother–in the healthiest, most interesting kind of way–with the heat of the chili peppers subdued by the richness of the chocolate. At this point I`m pretty much blown away as I sit, alone, in the colorfully decorated comedor. I can taste the hard work from generations of mothers and grandmothers–or cultural chemists–and their love and care for creating something so complex yet so simple is almost overwhelming. This special sauce is something which Mexicans have loved to consume for hundreds of years; often made for special events such as weddings, baptisms, birthdays and religious holidays. Something which every Mexican you meet will tell you their grandmother makes the best. I feel blessed to be experiencing it in the places where it was born. I wonder if anything even close to mole has ever or ever can be created in North America. With this, somehow my love and appreciation for food has managed to grow a little stronger. Just another moment of overwhelming love for the cultural powerhouse that is Mexico…