The famous mole from Mexican cuisine is called mole poblano. Mole poblano originated in the Mexican city of Puebla and has become one of Mexico’s most iconic and beloved dishes. It is a rich, complex sauce or paste made from chili peppers, chocolate, spices, nuts, and seeds. Mole poblano is served over meat – usually chicken or turkey. It has a deep reddish-brown color and a rich, savory flavor that combines the spiciness of chili peppers with the sweetness of chocolate. While mole poblano has many variations, the classic recipe contains over 20 ingredients and takes hours to prepare. When made well, it is considered one of the pinnacles of Mexican cuisine.
What are the Origins of Mole Poblano?
The origins of mole poblano stretch back centuries to the intersection of Spanish and indigenous cooking in Mexico. The dish likely originated in the convent kitchens of colonial Puebla, where nuns experimented with blending Old World and New World ingredients.
The earliest recorded mention of mole sauce is in the late 17th century. Food historian James Trager notes that by the 18th century, it was already a Spanish culinary term referring to any sauce containing chili peppers. The people of Puebla then began adding chocolate to the spicy pepper sauces, leading to what we now know as mole poblano.
The incorporation of chocolate was not random. Chocolate was an important Mesoamerican ingredient dating back centuries before the Spanish arrived. The indigenous peoples of Mexico traditionally prepared chocolate as a bitter, spicy drink. Adding chocolate to mole poblano was a way for locals to maintain their culinary heritage by sneaking this sacred indigenous ingredient into a Spanish culinary framework.
So while mole poblano has complex origins, its history speaks to the fusion between indigenous and colonial cultures that defines Mexican cuisine. Puebla emerged as the epicenter of mole sauces, showcasing the region’s skill in blending Old and New World ingredients.
What Ingredients are in Mole Poblano?
Mole poblano contains well over 20 ingredients that can generally be divided into five categories:
Chiles give mole poblano its characteristic spice and provide a base of flavor. The most important and iconic chile in the dish is the mulato chile – a reddish-brown, medium spicy dried chile. Other dried chiles commonly used include ancho, pasilla, and chipotle chiles.
Spices and Seeds
A complex medley of spices provides depth of flavor and aroma. These include cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, coriander, and Mexican oregano. The spices are generally toasted to intensify their flavors before being ground into a powder. Seeds like sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds may also be included, usually toasted until crisp.
Nuts add texture and nutty, earthy flavors. The most common are peanuts, almonds, pecans, and walnuts. Like the seeds, they are toasted to enhance their flavor before incorporation into the mole.
Chocolate and Sugar
Mole poblano derives its characteristic sweetness from Mexican chocolate and sugar. Traditional mole will use pure chocolate – not cocoa powder – to provide rich chocolate flavor without bitterness. The sugar balances the heat of the chiles.
Corn tortillas, day-old bread, crackers, or even cookies are used to thicken the sauce into the iconic thick paste consistency. Stale tortillas are usually toasted or fried into chips before blending into the sauce.
Those are the five essential building blocks of mole poblano. Cooks can include over double this amount of ingredients, though, tailoring the recipe to their tastes. Common additions include tomatoes, tomatillos, avocado leaves, garlic, onions, raisins, apples, plums, herbs like thyme and marjoram, chile seeds, and even beer or tequila.
How is Mole Poblano Prepared and Served?
The labor-intensive process of preparing mole poblano is considered a display of skill and dedication in Mexican cooking culture. While mole recipes vary, a classic mole poblano preparation may go like this:
Toasting the Chiles, Spices, and Seeds
First, the dried chiles are cleaned of seeds and stems, toasted over heat until fragrant, then soaked in water until rehydrated. The array of spices, seeds, and nuts are also toasted to intensify their flavors.
Blending the Ingredients
The chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, chocolate, and thickeners go into the blender or food processor to become a puree. The ingredients are blended, scraped down, and blended again repeatedly to achieve the smoothest possible texture. More water or stock is typically added until the sauce achieves a very thick, spoonable texture.
Simmering the Mole
Next, the mole puree goes into a pot and is simmered and stirred constantly anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. This helps meld the flavors and further thicken the sauce through evaporation. Many cooks say a properly simmered mole should coat the back of a spoon.
Adding the Meat
Once finished, the rich, velvety mole poblano is poured over the main protein – traditionally chicken or turkey that has been stewed until tender in water or broth. The dish is garnished with ingredients like chopped onions, sesame seeds, or cilantro before serving with rice, beans, and tortillas.
When done properly, mole poblano takes hours of tedious labor. Making mole from scratch is considered an act of devotion in Mexican culture, a labor of love. Cooks take pride in their signature mole recipe, perfected over years of practice.
What is the Cultural Significance of Mole Poblano in Mexico?
Beyond just a famous dish, mole poblano holds deep cultural meaning in Mexico. Here are some of the notable aspects of its cultural symbolism:
History and Identity
As noted earlier, mole poblano speaks to Mexico’s history as an intermingling of indigenous and Spanish cultures. Its balance of Old and New World ingredients represents Mexico’s unique cultural hybridity and mestizo identity. Eating mole is a way to savor Mexico’s complex national story.
Celebrations and Festivals
Mole is considered festive dish, firmly tied to celebrations of family, community, tradition, and patriotism across Mexico. It’s the quintessential cuisine for Independence Day fiestas, weddings, baptisms, Christmas, and other holidays. Puebla in particular has an annual Festival of Mole each September celebrating the dish.
While enjoyed nationwide, mole remains quintessentially tied to its original home of Puebla. Poblanos are fiercely proud of their mole heritage and their mole is considered the most authentic. For locals, mole poblano provides a edible symbol of their regional culture.
Making mole even from packaged ingredients takes patience and care. Preparing mole from scratch the traditional way is seen as a gesture of affection, warmth, generosity and skill – qualities highly valued in Mexican culture.
What are Some Different Types of Mole?
While mole poblano is the most famous, mole actually refers to a broad category of sauces in Mexican cuisine. There are many different types of mole beyond just the Pueblan original:
As described above, the reddish-brown chocolate-chili sauce originating in Puebla that has become known as Mexico’s “national dish.”
A darker, smokier mole also containing chocolate, often made with Oaxaca’s famously flavored chiles negros. Jet black in color.
A vibrant green mole made with pumpkin seeds, herbs, and tomatillo instead of chocolate. Often contains serrano peppers.
A sunny, golden mole made with yellow chiles guajillo, seeds, spices, onion, and garlic. Does not contain chocolate.
A red mole flavored with ancho chile, nuts, seeds, and a touch of chocolate. Less labor intensive than traditional mole poblano.
A fruit-based mole recipe using ingredients like apples, raisins, pear, and plantains. Manchamantel means “tablecloth staining” for its bright red hue.
A simpler, ancient form of mole using just pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as thickener instead of the wide array of nuts, seeds, and chocolate.
There are countless regional mole variations beyond just these as well. Part of mole’s appeal lies in how adaptable it is to cooks’ creativity and local preferences. While mole poblano remains the most iconic, Mexico’s diverse regions have all put their unique stamp on the dish.
What are Some Tips for Making Good Mole at Home?
Mole does takes patience and practice to master. Here are some helpful tips for making delicious mole poblano at home:
Toast and Bloom Your Chiles
Don’t skip the step of toasting and soaking the dried chiles – it makes a big difference in flavor. The toasting helps unlock their full flavor while soaking in water allows them to bloom and softens them for blending.
Grind and Blend Patiently
A good mole sauce is all about achieving the smoothest possible texture. Use a good blender or food processor and carefully blend the ingredients in batches. Scrape down the sides and keep blending until mole becomes almost silky.
The slow simmer is just as key as the blending. An hour or longer simmer – with constant stirring – allows the flavors to marry and the sauce to thicken fully. Pay close attention to moisture level and aim for a quite thick, spoon-coating consistency.
Layer the Flavors
Mole poblano relies on layering complex complementary flavors – heat, sweet, earthy, spicy, savory. Don’t shortcut on ingredients and stick close to traditional mole recipes rather than improvising.
Use Instant Aids Selectively
Mole pastes, sauces, and powders can provide a helpful shortcut but avoid depending too heavily on these alone. Supplement with additional homemade elements like homemade stock and toasted nuts and seeds.
Even using prepared mole paste as a base, finishing and seasoning the mole properly at home makes all the difference. With its incredible depth of flavors, mole does take practice but the results are well worth it!
In many ways mole poblano represents the very essence of Mexican cuisine – a rich tapestry of history, tradition, and intensely vibrant flavors. While originally the unique product of Puebla’s inventive convent kitchens, it has become Mexico’s most universally beloved dish. Mole’s complexity mirrors the country’s own diverse influences and ingredients. Through patience, skill, and care, Mexican cooks transform simple ingredients into culinary magic. Mole poblano deserves its fame and ubiquity. When made well, it lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s most remarkable culinary creations.