What makes a Mexican mole a mole? In short, moles are a type of sauce in Mexican cuisine that is characterized by the use of chili peppers, spices, and chocolate. The depth of flavor, hearty texture, and versatility distinguish moles from other Mexican sauces.
Moles come in many varieties but are generally categorized into the seven main types: negro (black), coloradito (little colored), rojo (red), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), chileatole (containing dried chiles), and manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer). While recipes vary across regions, traditional moles share common ingredients like chili peppers, spices, seeds, nuts, fruit, and Mexican chocolate.
The complexity of moles comes from the layering of multiple ingredients that give each variety its distinctive flavor profile. What makes them definitively mole is the blending and balancing of bitter, sweet, spicy, nutty, smoky, and fruity flavors.
What Are the Origins and History of Mole?
The origins of mole can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, where chili peppers, spices, seeds, and chocolate were part of the culinary tradition. The word “mole” comes from the Nahuatl word “moli” meaning sauce or “concoction.”
When Spain colonized Mexico in the 16th century, indigenous ingredients blended with Spanish culinary influences, giving rise to early moles which have evolved over centuries into the diverse regional varieties enjoyed today.
Each area of Mexico developed its own style of mole using local ingredients. Puebla claims to be the “home of mole” with its renowned mole poblano containing chili peppers, spices, peanuts, almonds, raisins, sesame seeds, and chocolate. Oaxaca is known for its elaborate black mole negro with up to 30 ingredients. Other states like Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz and others also have iconic moles.
The dish began as a food of the upper class but over time became more accessible. Mole remains an important part of celebrations, festivals, and family meals in Mexican culture. The labor intensive preparation is an expression of love, made from scratch with fresh ingredients.
What Ingredients Go Into Making Mole?
While there are countless mole variations, several key ingredients form the base:
Chili peppers – Dried chilis like mulato, ancho, pasilla, and chipotle are toasted, soaked, and blended to give mole its distinctive chili flavor. Pepper types vary by region.
Nuts – Peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, and sesame seeds thicken the sauce and provide nutty flavors.
Spices – Cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, and Mexican oregano provide depth of flavor.
Seeds – Pumpkin and sesame seeds add texture and richness.
Fruit and vegetables – Ingredients like tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, onion, and garlic balance the flavors.
Chocolate – Mexican chocolate adds sweetness, depth, and silky texture.
Broth or water – Used to blend and thin mole to the desired consistency.
Bread – Stale bread or tortillas can thicken and add substance.
The layering of multiple ingredients, often more than 20-30, creates mole’s complex flavor. Spices are freshly ground, chilies are toasted and reconstituted, seeds are fried, nuts are toasted, fruits and vegetables are cooked – all combined through labor intensive processes.
How Is Mole Made?
Making authentic mole from scratch involves multiple steps and techniques:
– Soaking and toasting dried chilis – Chilis are cleaned and soaked to rehydrate, then drained and toasted to intensify flavors. Chile seeds can be included or removed to control spice level.
– Frying or toasting nuts and seeds – Sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts are toasted to enhance nuttiness. Pumpkin seeds are fried.
– Blending sauces – Chilis, spices, nuts, seeds, and other ingredients are ground into pastes using a molcajete (mortar and pestle) or blender. Water or broth is added to achieve the desired consistency.
– Cooking vegetables – Onions, garlic, tomatoes, etc. are sauteed or simmered as flavor bases.
– Combining and simmering – The various blends, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and other elements are combined in a pot and simmered anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, allowing flavors to meld.
– Adding chocolate and thickening – Mexican chocolate is mixed in at the end, lending sweetness and silky texture. Tortillas or bread are used to thicken.
– Seasoning – More broth, salt, spices and sugar may be added to balance and adjust flavors.
The sheer amount of time, technique, and care required to orchestrate so many ingredients into a harmonious, complex sauce is what defines mole and makes it so revered in Mexican gastronomy.
The Characteristics and Flavor Profiles of Different Mole Varieties
There are seven main types of mole distinguished by their ingredients, texture, color and flavor:
Perhaps the most renowned, mole negro from Oaxaca turns jet black from its toasted chilis and has 30+ ingredients. It has a robust, earthy flavor with subtle sweetness. The chilis, chocolate, spices and fruit create layers of smokiness, moderate heat, and tang. Turkey is a classic pairing.
Coloradito translates to “little colored” red mole. It has a thinner texture spiked with ancho chili heat. Tomato, onion, garlic, seeds, nuts, and a touch of cinnamon and chocolate color it brick red with mild sweetness to counter the spiciness. Chicken works well.
Vibrant red mole rojo relies on guajillo, cascabel and ancho peppers. It’s intense and slightly acidic from tomatoes and fruit. Spices like cumin, clove and pepper come through. The red chilis’ fruity, toasted flavor pairs nicely with beef and pork.
Green mole gets its color from tomatillos, herbs and green chilis like poblano and jalapeño. Pumpkin seeds thicken it. Flecks of cilantro and tangy tomatillo cut through the moderate heat. Chicken and pork shine when bathed in the bright verdant sauce.
Amarillo features yellow chilis and has a thinner texture. Onion, garlic, cumin and oregano flavor the smooth, tomatillo based sauce flecked with chili and seeds. Poultry, fish and vegetables suit the mole’s mellow heat and tartness.
Pipián mole relies on pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, for its velvety texture and nutty essence instead of chocolate. Chili peppers play a supporting role to spices like cinnamon and clover. Pipián has subtle sweetness from pumpkin seeds that pairs well with poultry and seafood.
Manchamanteles contains fruits like pineapple and plantains that give it a tropical sweet and sour note to balance chili heat. Chili peppers blend with cinnamon and cloves while fruit adds tartness. The name means “tablecloth stainer” for its potential to leave stains. Pork is commonly paired.
How Is Mole Used in Mexican Cuisine?
Mole’s depth and complexity make it extremely versatile in Mexican cuisine both traditionally and in modern interpretations:
As a Sauce or Condiment
The classic way to present mole is as a sauce covering meat, fish or vegetables, often poured over chicken. Mole can be served on the side as a condiment for tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and more. Using it as a sauce allows the mole’s nuanced flavors to shine.
As a Marinade or Braising Liquid
Moles like pipián, negro or coloradito can be used to marinate meat before grilling or simmering, infusing robust mole flavor throughout while tenderizing. Mole’s depth makes it an excellent braising liquid as well.
In Soups and Stews
Mole’s rich, complex flavors pair wonderfully with brothy soups and hearty stews. Mole can be drizzled on top or used to prepare and simmer ingredients, infusing dishes with its essence.
Slathering vegetables like onions, squash, eggplant, and mushrooms with mole adds excitement. The sauce’s intensity stands up well to bold vegetables.
Mole is classically served with chicken but also pairs well with turkey, pork, lamb, beef, and other meats. The sauce complements and enhances different meats.
With Tamales and Enchiladas
Layering mole with masa in tamales or using it as a sauce for enchiladas provides a flavor bomb in each bite. The mole beautifully permeates the dish.
In Drinks and Desserts
Creative chefs have incorporated mole into cocktails, milkshakes, ice cream, chocolate truffles, and more sweet treats. Mole’s intrigue lends itself well to blending with drinks or desserts for a touch of spice.
The Significance and Importance of Mole in Mexican Cuisine and Culture
Over centuries mole has evolved from an aristocratic food of indigenous people to a quintessential part of Mexican cuisine and heritage. Here are some of the factors that contribute to mole’s significance:
Regional Pride and Identity
Different areas of Mexico closely identify with their local mole recipes and variations using local chili peppers, chocolate, and spices. Each region’s mole is a source of immense pride and part of cultural identity passed down through generations.
Mole is an important part of celebrations like weddings, baptisms, birthdays, religious holidays, patriotic holidays, festivals, and other special occasions. The lavish, labor intensive dish expresses joy and marks milestones.
Recipes are often carefully guarded family secrets handed down for generations. Making mole is a long process requiring patience and care – an act of devotion and love for those who will savor it.
The origins of mole date back to pre-Hispanic Mexico’s ancient civilizations. Though recipes evolved with Spanish influence, mole’s roots represent the country’s indigenous cultural heritage.
Mole is the defining, iconic sauce of Mexican cuisine. Its complexity and diversity of flavors represent the country’s culinary spirit of blending ingredients thoughtfully to create more than the sum of their parts.
Labor of Love
With its grinding, soaking, simmering, and combining of ingredients, mole takes hours of hands on effort to produce a nuanced final product. The meticulous process expresses the care and skill of the cook.
Mole negro’s dark color and kingly status has come to represent Mexican national identity and pride – a cultural symbol that captures the country’s layered indigenous ingredients and history.
So from its roots in ancient civilizations to its evolution as a distinguished Mexican cuisine, mole holds a deep significance as a beloved cultural tradition and identity tied to history, celebration, family, and culinary craft.
Examples of Classic Mole Dishes and Recipes
To showcase mole’s range and adaptability, here are some classic Mexican dishes and recipes featuring different mole varieties:
Mole Poblano with Turkey
Mole Poblano – Chilis, chocolate, nuts, spices, bread, seeds
Turkey – Whole roasted turkey smothered in the chocolate-tinged chili sauce
Sides – Rice, beans, tortillas
This famous dish showcases luxurious, silky mole poblano enveloping moist, savory turkey. The bittersweet chocolate balances the mild turkey beautifully.
Enchiladas de Mole
Mole Negro Oaxaqueño – Oaxaca’s renowned black mole with 30+ ingredients
Shredded Chicken – Poached, shredded chicken meat
Corn Tortillas – Rolled around chicken and bathed in mole negro
Onions, Cheese – Garnishes for flavor and texture
The rich, complex mole negro sauces chicken stuffed corn tortillas for an indulgent, flavorful dish.
Pipián Verde con Cerdo
Pipián Verde – Green pumpkin seed mole with herbs
Pork – Braised, shredded pork shoulder
Sides – Rice, beans, tortillas
Velvety, bright green pumpkin seed pipián mole is the ideal foil for succulent braised and shredded pork shoulder.
Pescado Zarandeado con Mole Amarillo
Mole Amarillo – Smooth, yellow mole with tomatillos and chilis
Fish – Butterflied red snapper grilled over mesquite
Sides – Rice, vegetables, tortillas
Grilled fish is bathed in tart, smoky yellow mole amarillo for a light, charred, and saucy dish.
Mole Manchamanteles con Pollo
Mole Manchamanteles – Fruit based mole with pineapple and spices
Chicken – Shredded chicken braised in the fruity mole
Sides – Rice, vegetables
Sweet and spicy mole manchamanteles pairs wonderfully with succulent shredded chicken in this saucy dish.
Interesting Facts About Mole
Beyond being a quintessential Mexican sauce, mole has some fascinating stories and information behind it:
Puebla’s Mole Poblano Origins
Mole poblano was allegedly invented by nuns in the Santa Rosa convent in Puebla, who whipped up the celebratory dish with limited pantry ingredients for a visiting archbishop.
Mexico’s National Dish
Mole is considered Mexico’s national dish, a source of identity and a representation of Mexican cuisine’s diversity and complexity.
Authentic mole poblano is traditionally served in special handmade Talavera pottery bowls.
Day of the Dead
Mole is often eaten during Day of the Dead festivities, with soulful mole recipes passed down through generations.
Holy Trinity of Sauce Mothers
Legend holds that three nun “sauce mothers” invented the first moles, kept secret for generations by their respective convents.
Some believe mole poblano did not contain chocolate traditionally, which was a later addition in the 19th century once the ingredient became more accessible.
Oaxacan Black Magic
According to myth, mole negro’s striking black color comes from mystical ingredients like burnt bats or volcanic soil.
Moles use ingredients like nuts, raisins, and spices introduced by Spanish colonizers, blending indigenous and Spanish tastes.
In addition to festive occasions, mole can be enjoyed daily as an accompaniment elevating simple ingredients into extraordinary.
Mole represents the heart and soul of authentic Mexican cuisine. Much more than just a sauce, it embodies the country’s indigenous traditions, colonial influences, culinary craft, regional diversity, family rituals, and national pride.
While recipes vary widely, mole defines itself by balancing multiple ingredients into a harmonious, multilayered flavor profile. Its depth comes from the meticulous melding of chilis, spices, nuts, seeds, chocolate, fruits and vegetables. Generations of patience, love, and skill go into executing the perfect mole.
This iconic sauce continues evolving while remaining an essential part of Mexican culture, identity, and celebration. Mole’s stories and traditions will live on for generations to come through those willing to undertake the labor of love needed to produce the precious sauce.