Every day the Mexico kitchen at the Folklife Festival had about seven demonstrations. On a couple of days, the schedule featured three different mole recipes, and I would hear passers-by wonder why there were three demos on one item. Wasn’t it all the same? That’s when I would invite them to stay and watch the demo, and I’d tell them that there are at least 34 types of moles that I know of, and that they are as varied as the regions in which they are cooked.
Molli, or mulli, from which our modern-day word “mole” comes from, is a nahuatl word meaning “a sauce or stew. A sauce made with nuts and spices” (my translation from the Spanish edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Nahuatl, Siglo XXI Editores, 1977) and it has been in the Mexican culinary repertoire since before the conquest. Bernardino de Sahagún, the Spanish missionary and chronicler details in his Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, that after a wedding ceremony the couple would feast on tamales and mulli, which they would feed to each other. To this day, mole is a meal of celebration. Birthdays, baptisms, weddings and the like are a reason to eat mole. It was traditionally served with turkey, a bird indigenous to the region, but it is most commonly eaten with chicken nowadays and as a topping for tamales.
The public who came to the Mexico Program demos at the Folklife Festival discovered that there are several colors of moles: green, red and black, for example. That different chiles are used, depending on the region, that mole is not a vegetarian dish, as all the recipes eventually called for chicken stock (when asked for substitutions the participants adamantly said no, you need chicken stock, it adds to the flavor). Attendees came to find out that mole is a laborious endeavor, one that involves several hours of work, from toasting the ingredients, to milling them, to making them into the sauce. Finally, they also discovered that while chocolate is present in most recipes, it is not the main ingredient, and depending on the region, different types of chocolate are used.
However, it wasn’t just the public that discovered the different types of moles we were cooking in the demo kitchen. The Festival participants themselves were discovering and tasting each other’s moles, prompting the different groups to criticize and analyze each other’s recipes. Too often someone would come in, taste a mole that had just been made, and deem it “too bitter” and in need of more chocolate. Others would shake their heads at the fact that the chocolate used for a certain recipe was bitter, and not sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. Others would just glance at a cazuela (the traditional clay pot used to make moles and beans) and discard the mole as “probably not good, as it doesn’t have the right color”. Yet they would eventually taste it and be genuinely intrigued by the differences. And while not all of them walked out of the kitchen thinking that this mole was -if not just as good- all right compared to their mole, it was at least an experience of discovery, in which people of one region of México learned about another’s cooking traditions.
One of the first mole recipes to be presented was one from Morelos, and it came courtesy of Alma Reyes and Karem Rodríguez, from Atlatlahucan, Morelos, México.
Yield: 10 servings
- 500 gr toasted sesame seeds (or if fresh, you will need to toast them)
- 250gr Chile ancho
- 250 gr Chile pasilla
- 250gr de peanuts, unsalted
- 500gr plantain
- 250 gr walnuts
- 125 gr almonds
- 125 gr raisins
- 10 cloves
- 10 peppercorns
- 10 anise seeds
- 10 gr cinnamon
- 6 slices of toasted bread
- 1 1/2 corn tortilla
- 1 square of dark chocolate (about 1 oz)
- 2 whole chickens, which you will cook in water to make broth
- one onion, divided in half
- two heads garlic
- about 6 cups of the broth in which you cooked the chicken (this quantity varies, as you need to taste as you go to make sure your mole is not too strong)
- On a skillet, or if you have it, a comal, roast the sesame seeds until they are lightly browned. Don’t let them burn. Remove from skillet and let them cool.
- Under moderate flame, heat up the oil in a skillet or low pan and, starting with the chiles fry them until each lightly browned. Remove from heat and allow it to cool. Repeat this procedure with each ingredient through the tortilla. Do not fry the ingredients together.
- While the mole ingredients cool, cook the chicken with half the onion, garlic and salt to make a broth. Once cooked, remove the chicken and allow to cool slightly.
- Once the mole ingredients are cool, using a metate (stone grind), or a hand mill, grind all the ingredients until they form a moist powder (the texture may also be that of a paste). If you have neither one, a blender can be used, though it’s not recommended.
- Bring a heavy pot to heat and add two spoons oil. Under medium heat, add the mole powder and mix well with the oil. Add the chicken broth and stir until mixed well. You may need to add more broth to the mixture so it does not taste too strong. Bring mole to boil and reduce heat. Add the chocolate. Allow mole to boil softly until it becomes thick and you can see a layer of oil forming on top of it. Mole can be fidgety, boil fast and burn fast also. Monitor the boil so it is soft.
- Take the second half of the onion, slice it julienne and fry it in a bit of oil. Once it’s golden and soft, add the chicken pieces so they brown golden and they pick up the flavor of the onion. Cook for about 5 minutes
- Once the mole gets to the desired thickness and the chicken is fried, they are ready to be served.
- Serve the chicken pieces with the mole sauce on top and decorate them with sesame seeds.
- Accompany with tamales, rice, tortillas or bread.