This traditional Mexican staple has a history as rich as its flavor.
When it comes to complexity, versatility, and richness, there are few foods that can compare with the sauce that has dominated Latin American tables for centuries: Mole. The national dish of Mexico, mole is not only a sauce, but an important part of the country’s culinary and cultural identity. Indeed, many Mexican households have their own familial recipe, passed down from generation to generation, that perfectly captures the tastes and traditions of that household.
Part of the appeal of mole is its wide breadth of uses and ability to add flavor and complexity to any dish. However, unlike most sauces, mole is meant to be the star of the plate, rather than a mere accent.
Though mole is undoubtedly delicious, it does take some serious dedication to make your own from scratch, requiring ample time, effort, and ingredients. In fact, many traditional moles require upwards of 30 ingredients—with some even containing 100 ingredients or more—which accounts for the sauce’s complex flavors.
In order to prepare your own mole from scratch, using authentic methods, it requires roasting and grinding many of the ingredients prior to preparation, traditionally done by hand with a Molcajete (mortar and pestle) or with large “Molino” grinders found in storefronts around Mexico. Then, these ingredients are combined with stock over a low heat and simmered for hours, with additional liquid added continuously until the sauce has reached the perfect consistency and depth. For those interested in making their own mole, but aren’t fully committed to an hours-long process, pre-made mole pastes and powders can be found at Mexican markets and online for an easier introduction to the process.
As a rule, all moles contain some form of fruit, nut, and chili pepper (some of the most common include Chipotle, Ancho, and Mulato); however, from there the variations are endless. The most famous variety of mole outside of Latin America is undoubtedly Mole Poblano, a thick, chocolately sauce that originated in Puebla. That said, digging into this semi-sweet dish means just cracking the surface of the vast world of moles.
In Oaxaca, hungry visitors will find seven famed varieties of the sauce: Negro, Coloradito, Chichilo, Rojo, Amarillo, Manchamantel, and Verde. Recently in Oaxaca, at the 70-year-old family-owned Restaurante Coronita, I tasted a sampling of the region’s moles, each with its own complex flavor profiles. In addition to a bright Mole Rojo and slightly sweet black Mole Negro, there were also the light and fruity Mole Manchamantel, an herbaceous Mole Verde, and a rich, meaty Mole Chicihilo, made with homemade beef stock.
The famed dish took its name from the word “mōlli,” meaning sauce in Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs that is still spoken by millions of native Mexicans today. As for the exact origin of the sauce, that is a highly contested part of Mexican history.
One legend suggests the dish was created in the 16th century by nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, who were scrambling to prepare an impressive meal for a visiting archbishop with the limited ingredients they had on hand. The story goes that they chopped, roasted, and combined the chilies, nuts, spices, and day-old bread they had lying around the kitchen until their mixture became the rich, hearty sauce we still consume today.
The other origin story claims that mole was born pre-Spanish conquest, and that the dish first came into the limelight when Aztec king Montezuma served the Spanish conquistadors—whom he believed to be gods—a banquet including the chocolate-laden dish. However, according to some culinary experts, the concept of Aztecs using chocolate, a food they considered to be extremely reverent, to flavor a dish would have been out of the question, just as early Christians wouldn’t have used a splash of wine in their cooking.
Still to this day, the states of Oaxaca and Puebla continue to fight for the label of the home place of mole, with both regions proudly taking responsibility for Mexico’s national food. Though we may never know who truly lays claim to the beloved dish, one thing is certain—there’s no better way to experience the flavors of Mexico than a fresh, fragrant batch of this history-rich sauce.