Dominga Velasco Rodriguez doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t know how to make mole.
The head mole maker at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Koreatown has been making the meticulously seasoned, chile-thickened sauce since she was a child. Now, nearly six decades later, she’s cheerful but firm in her mole-making opinions.
She eschews canned ingredients, never writes down recipes and refuses to cook in a bad mood (“The bitterness will be palpable in the food”). “I still feel a burst of adrenaline when I step into the kitchen to make my moles,” she said.
She learned to make mole from her grandmother in Zaachila, near Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. Together, they made it the way indigenous women have been making it for hundreds of years: grinding ingredients by hand on a stone metate and simmering the sauce in earthenware cazuelas.
Mole, which is derived from the Nahuatl word “molli” — often translated as “sauce” or “mixture” — is used to describe a vast universe of intricately spiced pastes, sauces and stews cooked throughout Mexico. It is the country’s most complex, varied and revered dish, prepared for special occasions but also eaten casually on weeknights.
To think of mole as a sauce fails to capture its spirit and range. Mole is about the detailed layering of flavors; each ingredient is usually prepared or cooked separately, and then blended into a thick, complex substance that is simmered into harmony. Although it is often paired with meats and rice, mole is never the side dish: It is the centerpiece of the table.
Mole is so deeply rooted in the Mexican consciousness that most children there grow up hearing the origin story of the country’s fabled mole poblano, which dates to late 17th century Puebla. It involves a nun named Sor Andrea de la Asunción of the Convent of Santa Rosa who, while cooking a meal in honor of a visiting archbishop, blended old and new world ingredients, stumbling onto a recipe of dried chiles, seeds, nuts and chocolate that is traditionally served over guajolote (turkey) or chicken. Some versions of the story tell of a “divine wind” that miraculously drops all the ingredients into one pot. (Today, many historians interpret the story as a colonialist myth that romanticized the encounter between indigenous and European cultures and bolstered Mexican nationalist identity.)
There are countless mole varieties found throughout Mexico, including distinctive regional varieties like mole poblano and the inky mole de huitlacoche from Tlaxcala. The heart and soul of the country’s mole culture, though, is in Oaxaca, nicknamed the land of seven moles.
At Sabores Oaxaqueños, Rodriguez regularly makes five of them: a mole rojo that glows faintly with spice; a reddish-yellow amarillo served with green beans and chayote squash; a thinnish sage-green variety fragrant with epazote; a mild, rich coloradito, the color of faded brick; and the restaurant’s bestseller, a pitch-black, smoky-sweet mole negro made with the squat, dark Oaxacan chile known as chilhuacle.
What gives mole its identity are the chiles, she says, and the treatment of them is crucial.
The chiles must be thoroughly cleaned and then fried or toasted with absolute precision to avoid undesirable bittterness. Careful attention to details like this are the difference, to Rodriguez, between a refined mole and a mole corriente (a run-of-the-mill mole).
Like thousands of other Oaxacan immigrants, Rodriguez came to Los Angeles in the 1990s, when the Mexican peso crisis spurred a surge in migration to the United States.
She was a full-time cook in Oaxaca when she received a job offer from Guelaguetza in Los Angeles. For 15 years, she cooked mole and other traditional dishes at the seminal Oaxacan restaurant.
The job separated her from her three daughters, a sacrifice she made to pay for their education.
“I didn’t want my daughters to have to stand behind a comal for a living,” she said.
She is part of a wave of Oaxacan immigrant chefs and restaurateurs who came to California seeking a better life and who reshaped Los Angeles’ culinary landscape in the process, turning the city into a mole haven.
Today, Los Angeles is home to the largest concentration of Oaxacan restaurants outside of Mexico, many of them clustered around community enclaves in Koreatown, Pico-Union, West L.A. and other neighborhoods.
The cultural pipeline between southern Mexico and California, a phenomenon known as Oaxacalifornia, has been a boon for mole lovers in the city, says Pedro Ramos, founder of La Feria de los Moles, a mole festival held every fall in downtown L.A. It drew around 50,000 attendees last year.
A native of Puebla, Mexico, Ramos started the festival in 2008 on a lark: He dared a Oaxacan friend to join him in a friendly Puebla versus Oaxaca mole-making competition.
“That first year, we sold out of mole within two hours,” Ramos said.
Attendance has ballooned every year at the free event, which is now billed as the biggest Mexican food festival in the United States. It spotlights the breadth of moles, which include pipianes (pumpkin-seed-based), adobos (vinegar-based) and verdes made using wild herbs, among others.
“Mole has many different expressions,” Ramos said.
At CaCao Mexicatessen, the longtime Mexican cafe and deli in Eagle Rock, chef Christy Lujan makes one of the city’s most distinctive moles: a poblano with black Mission figs.
“A few years back, we were really into the resurgence of Valle de Guadalupe and Baja cooking and wine. Figs were really popular down there at the time,” she said.
Her fig mole recipe includes roasted chiles and a blend of dried and fresh figs, plus nuts, raisins, sesame seeds, chocolate, French herbs, a pantry full of spices and a fanciful-seeming flourish: crumbled animal crackers. (Many moles are thickened with masa or ground tortillas, some with bread, but if you poke around online, you’ll find that animal crackers aren’t completely foreign to cazuelas in Puebla or the United States.)
Because it’s such an involved undertaking, Lujan’s team makes it in 20-gallon batches, an event known around the restaurant as “mole day.”
Mole is the ultimate chef’s dish because it lends itself to experimentation, said Lujan, who trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco (now the Cordon Bleu).
“What I really like about mole is that there are so many variations. You don’t really need a set recipe. As long as you have chiles, a type of nut and a sweetener like plantains or any fruit, you can make a mole,” she said.
Most restaurant moles hew close to tradition but, as evidenced by the breadth of regional varieties, where recipes often change from town to town and family to family, customization is part and parcel of Mexican mole culture.
For her part, Rodriguez wishes Angelenos had a better sense of the immense variety of Oaxacan-style moles.
Oaxaca, home to 17 indigenous groups and seven distinct geographic regions, is one of Mexico’s most culturally and linguistically diverse states.
“Our gastronomy is very extensive. You could spend a whole month eating mole in Oaxaca and not get to sample everything,” Rodriguez said.
Angelenos are getting only a small taste of Oaxacan mole culture, she said.
She wishes younger Oaxacan chefs cooked more obscure regional varieties, which she fears may be lost to industrialization, environmental degradation and the breakneck pace of modern life.
“We’re losing a lot of traditional mole recipes because a lot of younger chefs don’t cook them. They are too laborious to make,” she said. “It can also be hard to find the ingredients.”
She cites chichilo rojo, a mole from Oaxaca City and the Valles Centrales, that depends on a specific chile (the red chilhuacle) and a musky wild herb called hierba de conejo.
“These ancestral moles aren’t practical or easy to make,” she said.
Rodriguez is starting to consider retirement. She hopes to pass on her recipes to someone who loves mole and can make them come alive.
“You have to imagine that you are the one who is going to be eating it,” she said. “You are giving the best part of yourself so someone else can enjoy it. That’s the whole point of making it.”
There are infinite mole varieties in Mexico, some more famous than others. Here are six common styles.
Mole poblano: A deep, dark-red, anise-scented sauce, it’s typically made using a blend of mulato, ancho and pasilla chiles; ground nuts and seeds; vegetables; a bit of chocolate; and sesame seeds. Traditionally, it’s served with turkey, although chicken has become commonplace.
Mole negro oaxaqueño: The king of Oaxacan moles, the ink-black sauce rivals mole poblano in complexity and popularity. It’s usually made with a blend of toasted guajillo, chilhuacle negro, mulato and pasilla chiles, whose seeds are burnt to give the sauce its intense smokiness.
Oaxaqueños: Apart from mole negro, the southern Mexican state is famed for six other sauces: a usually thin, aromatic amarillo (yellow); a sweet, spicy rojo (red); epazote-scented verde (green); the savory chichilo; the sweet coloradito scented with cloves and cinnamon; and the fruity manchamanteles (tablecloth-staining).
Pipián: Moles thickened with the thin-skinned, green pumpkin seeds called pepitas are called pipianes. Common varieties include pipián rojo (red pipián), made with tomatoes, garlic and dried peppers, and pipián verde (green pipián), usually made with a blend of tomatillos and leafy herbs. Mexico is home to countless other rojo and verde mole varieties that use other types of nuts or thickeners.
Mole blanco: Sometimes called mole de novia or velo de novia (bride’s mole or bridal veil mole), the nut-heavy sauce is made using skinless almonds, pine nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, toasted bread and white chocolate.
Mole rosa: The famed pink mole from Taxco, Guerrero, is made with chipotle chiles, various nuts and aromatics, garlic and either pulque or mezcal. Its signature color comes from roasted beetroot.