The first time I visited Mexico City, many years ago, I dined in the Zona Rosa at Fonda El Refugio, a traditional restaurant that opened my eyes to a number of dishes I hadn't seen at home in Los Angeles. One of those dishes was mole poblano, a dish I had heard of, but never tasted.
Intrigued, I ordered it. Astonished by its richness and intensity — chocolaty and spicy at the same time — I wiped every trace from the plate and even brought home the plate (in those days, El Refugio sold its dinnerware). It was like nothing I had ever eaten.
I returned to Mexico many times after that mole-awakening, often exploring regions where mole was important, particularly Puebla, Oaxaca and Veracruz. I marveled at the sheer variety and deliciousness of local variations of this rich, spicy sauce made of dried chiles, almonds, peanuts, chocolate and many more ingredients ground into a paste, thinned with broth and served with meat. It was fascinating to see how one dish could be so intricately changed and embellished from region to region and cook to cook.
Originally, the dish was made with turkey; moles using the indigenous fowl became fashionable throughout the state of Puebla. Because it was labor-intensive and expensive, it eventually became the fiesta dish, spreading to other regions. It still enjoys that honor.
"Mole is present at every special event of our lives," says Jalisco-born chef Ramiro Arvizu of the Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana in Bell.
Mole as we know it was created in the late 17th century, when a banquet was arranged in Puebla for a newly arrived viceroy. The task of preparing the main dish fell to a Dominican nun, Sor Andrea de la Asunción of the Convent of Santa Rosa, whose cooking was much sought after by the city's elite. In those days, convents were renowned for exquisite cooking. The nuns concocted intricate sweets, pastries, liqueurs and other dishes, applying Spanish and Moorish cookery techniques to indigenous ingredients.
The dish's name came from mulli or molli (sauce) in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Its ancestor was an aristocratic, chocolate-flavored concoction served to the emperor Moctezuma. More than a century later, in Sor Andrea's inspired hands, it became a sumptuous dish, delighting the viceroy and earning its standing as Mexico's national dish. The beautiful tiled kitchen of the convent where mole was created is now a museum, and shops in Puebla sell mole paste as a souvenir.
I also sampled wonderful mole plates in Veracruz, the Gulf state which borders Puebla. Particularly good were those at Dona Josefina, a restaurant in the mountain town of Naolinco, and those at Meson Xiqueno, in the colonial town of Xico. On one of the main streets of Xico are shops that sell rich brown Xico-style mole paste — cooks use this as a shortcut to cooking the labor-intensive dish. Of course I couldn't resist picking some up to bring home.
The moles are basically the same style in Puebla, Veracruz and Guanajuato, where I bought a homemade paste that was so good I never cooked with it but ate it just the way it was, spread on a warm tortilla. Sweet, fragrant with spices, chile-infused yet elegantly balanced, it was a peak taste, a landmark in my search for great mole.
The one state where moles are different is Oaxaca, the "land of the seven moles." There you find mole negro (black mole), as well as red, green and yellow moles and moles estofado, coloradito and chichilo. The variations among them result from the particular chiles used, whether the chiles are dried or fresh (for green mole they are fresh), whether the tortillas used to thicken the mole are roasted (as they are for mole negro), any vegetables or herbs included (for instance, herba santa is used in green mole), any fruits used (raisins are an ingredient in estofado; plantain is used in mole poblano) and whether or not chocolate is included (for green and yellow it is not).
Although Southern California has always been rich in Mexican food, wonderful moles were hard to come by — until fairly recently. It used to be that when you did find them, they were pedestrian, often hastily made with commercial pastes.
California's changing moles
Now terrific restaurant moles are plentiful — you just have to know where to look. As in Mexico, poblano-style mole is most common, though in Oaxacan restaurants, it would be mole negro (known as "king of the moles" in Oaxaca).
California's growing — and changing — Mexican American population has not only increased the demand for mole, but also supplied cooks who know how mole should be made. And the Oaxacan migration that has mushroomed over the past two decades has brought the seven moles from that state to ours. Because our city's best Mexican chefs are willing to share their recipes for contemporary versions of this time-honored dish, it's now possible to dine at home on the dish once relished by Mexican royalty.
In Southern California, as in Mexico, there are as many variations of mole as there are cooks. Some versions are spicy, others mild. Some are very sweet, and others rely on only the sugar blended into Mexican chocolate tablets.
Pastes to taste
Even the type of chocolate used can vary. In Mexico, it is common to hand-select the components of the chocolate, which include cacao beans, almonds, sugar and spices, and have them ground to taste.
In the original mole, turkey that had been fattened with chestnuts and hazelnuts was simmered in the sauce, according to "La Típica Cocina Poblana," a 1945 cookbook by Salazar Monroy.
Today's chefs tend to use chicken; for convenience's sake, it is often roasted or boiled separately, then sauced with the mole. But traditionally meats were cooked in the sauce that suffused it with flavor.
Not everyone has the time or skill to blend their own sauce, so even in Mexico, cooks use the pastes, which include the basic components — chiles, chocolate, nuts and spices. There's no shame in this — the pastes can be very good, and skilled cooks enrich them until they meet their own high standards by adding tomatoes, additional chocolate, sugar and other seasonings and freshly made broth. And mole negro requires dried chiles not available here, such as the chilhuacle, so for authentic flavor, it is necessary to use a paste from Oaxaca.
Mayordomo, the famous chocolate producer of Oaxaca, has recently begun to export the red and black mole pastes that formerly were sold only at its outlets in downtown Oaxaca. (It's available at http://www.mexichoco.com ; other brands are widely available in L.A.)
Mole sauces usually get their body from a thickener, such as tortillas or bread, or both. A woman from Puebla told me that she uses animal crackers.
Today you can find moles made not only with chicken, but also with pork. But it's not just for saucing meats; mole is also used in many other ways. Enmoladas are enchiladas sauced with mole. In Oaxaca, mole negro is a popular filling for tamales; you can find them in L.A.'s Oaxacan restaurants (such as Guelaguetza) or Oaxacan delis. In Puebla, a cozy little restaurant called La Gardenia garnishes rice with mole sauce. Here at home, Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana serves it with chips, flautas, chiles rellenos, chilaquiles, even huevos rancheros.
Our mole poblano recipe comes from La Casita's chef-owners Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu. They went to Puebla to research the dish, then added their own refinements, boosting the chocolate flavor by adding ground toasted cacao beans as well as Mexican chocolate tablets. It's a dense, rich mole with intense chile flavors.
To make it, five kinds of chiles are fried and then soaked overnight. The next day, they're puréed, then added to a sauce made of roasted and ground tomatoes, several kinds of seeds, nuts, plantain, raisins, chocolate and more. Partially cooked chicken is finished by simmering in the sauce; we adapted the recipe for turkey, as well.
Like Oaxacan mole verde (green mole), ours is made with fresh chiles rather than dried, but it comes from a Mexico City-born chef. Yerika Muñoz, chef of Frida Mexican Cuisine in Beverly Hills, also uses pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tomatillos, lettuce and cilantro along with poblano, serrano and jalapeño chiles. The result is a very fresh, light tasting sauce that makes a perfect pairing with pork. This adaptation is made with pork shoulder roast and is less labor-intensive than many moles.
One of the specialties of Maria Lopez of the Guelaguetza restaurants in Koreatown is coloradito, a sweet, lightly colored Oaxacan mole. Her recipe offers an efficient sequence for roasting tomatoes, chiles, seeds, spices and other ingredients in a skillet, then puréeing, simmering and adding chocolate and thickener.
In a cooking class dedicated to mole at the Academia Falcon in Guanajuato, my classmates and I ground up fried bolillo roll, plantain, tomato, peanuts and cloves and stirred this into mole paste from the local market, along with freshly made chicken broth, sesame seeds, additional chocolate and sugar. Even though we were beginners, the result, which we used to sauce the boiled chicken, was sensational.
Sor Andrea had to prepare her mole for a viceroy, but my class was luckier. There were no exalted guests to feed, so we ate it all ourselves.
Mole, in its many guises, can now be found in restaurants all over L.A. Here are some of our favorites.
Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana: The mole poblano is served with chicken or pork for $9. The rich sauce, made from scratch, is also offered with enchiladas and other dishes. 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898.
El Arco Iris: The mole poblano, served with chicken or enchiladas (both $8.95), tastes of chiles but is only slightly hot, and it's much less sweet than most moles in Los Angeles. 5684 York Blvd., Los Angeles (Highland Park), (323) 254-3401.
Frida Mexican Cuisine: The aristocratic Mole Poblano El Rey plate ($15) features a house-made mole with 32 ingredients served with a cheese-filled gordita, red rice and black beans and handmade tortillas. Mole verde is $14. 236 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 278-7666.
Guelaguetza: There are three Guelaguetza restaurants. At the Koreatown restaurants, several kinds of mole come with chicken, beef or pork, depending on the sauce. The tamal oaxaqueño is filled with chicken in smoky, fruity black mole sauce; enchiladas are sauced with either red or black mole. $8.50 to $10.50. There are four Oaxacan moles on the menu in West L.A.: black, red, estofado and coloradito. The black mole is made with a paste from Juquila, Oaxaca. All three sell mole paste. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608; 3337 1/2 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0601; 11127 Palms Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 837-1153.
La Cabanita: La Cabanita has two moles, a sweet and spicy red-brown sauce served with chicken and made using a prepared paste, and a creamy, hot mole verde served with chicken or pork. Both $10.95. 3445 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, (818) 957-2711.
Los Anaya's: The spicy mole rojo poblano (red mole Puebla style) has a subtle hint of plantain along with dried chiles, nuts, chocolate and spices that include ginger, garlic and cumin. The green mole blends lettuce, radish leaves, pepitas, mint and epazote. Both $6.99. 12662 Chapman Ave., A-4, Garden Grove, (714) 740-1533.
Mi Distrito Federal: The mole rojo con pollo ($7) is spicy and not a bit sweet. It comes with rice and sturdy handmade tortillas. 13753 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 896-6966.
Señor Fred: The kitchen at Señor Fred has played around with moles, settling finally on a recipe worked out by the chef, Juan Carlos Leon, with advice from his mother, Isabel Hernandez of Puerto Vallarta. It's a mild, Puebla-style mole that incorporates dried chiles, canned chipotles, tomatoes, chocolate and many other ingredients. The sauce is served over a roasted half chicken ($14.95). 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-3200.
Tamales Liliana's: Tamales Liliana's may be the only place in town where you can have chicken in a Zacatecas-style peanut mole ($6.50). The mild, creamy, orange sauce is lighter in texture and flavor than Puebla moles, and less sweet. Although the restaurant has two locations, only the larger one, on Cesar E. Chavez, has the mole. 4619 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East Los Angeles, (323) 780-0989.
Tamayo: At Tamayo, glossy, dark mole sauce with rich chocolate flavor is poured over roasted chicken golden from an adobo marinade. The plate, which includes rice and beans, is $14.95. 5300 E. Olympic Blvd., East Los Angeles, (323) 260-4700.
Teresitas: Teresitas Family Restaurant in East Los Angeles bases its mole poblano ($9.95) on mole paste from Puebla. Served only on Thursdays. 3826 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (323) 266-6045.
The Spanish Kitchen: You can choose from two styles of mole at the Spanish Kitchen. Pollo en mole negro, chicken in black mole from Oaxaca ($17), is on hand daily, but enchiladas sauced with sweeter, Puebla style mole ($10) are available only on Mondays. 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-4794.
Total time: 4 hours plus overnight soaking
Servings: 10 to 12
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana. For a milder version omit the puya chiles. Chiles, cacao beans and Mexican crema are available in Latin markets.
16 mulato chiles
20 pasilla negro chiles
10 ancho chiles
14dried chipotle chiles
4 puya chiles, optional
½ cup oil
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1. The day before making the mole, remove the stems and seeds from the chiles; rinse the chiles and pat dry. Reserve three-fourths teaspoon of the seeds for the mole sauce. Heat the oil in a large skillet, add the chiles (in batches if necessary) and fry until glossy, about 4 minutes. Drain and place in a Dutch oven. Cover with 10 cups hot water, add the vinegar and let stand overnight, covered.
2. The next day, drain the chiles and reserve the soaking liquid. Working in batches, place the drained chiles in a blender jar. Add enough soaking liquid to blend them smoothly. Repeat with the remaining chiles and set the mixture aside. This makes about 8 cups.
2 large plum tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup cacao beans
1/4teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon anise seeds
2 tablespoons pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
3/4 teaspoon reserved chile seeds
3/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons
sesame seeds, toasted
1 stick cinnamon
1 cup oil, divided
1 corn tortilla (let air dry while assembling ingredients)
1/4 bolillo roll, sliced crosswise
1/4 ripe plantain, sliced
1/4cup shelled raw peanuts
1/3cup plus 1 tablespoon
Leaves from 1 sprig thyme
1 sprig Italian parsley
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablets Mexican chocolate
(6.2 ounces), chopped
1/2 to 1 cup sugar, according to taste
1. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Do not peel them before or after roasting. Slice the onion crosswise into 1-inch-thick pieces. Roast the tomatoes, onion and garlic cloves in an ungreased skillet until spotted with brown. Remove from the pan and place in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Add the cacao beans to the skillet and roast until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then remove from pan, wrap in a towel and set aside to cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, remove outer shell and skin. Next add the coriander seeds, anise seeds, pepitas, reserved chile seeds, peppercorns, cloves, sesame seeds and cinnamon stick to the skillet and roast just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to the bowl.
3. Add one-half cup oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot, fry the tortilla, then the bolillo slices until the tortilla is crisp and the bolillo slices are golden. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Fry the plantain slices until golden and softened. Remove and drain. Set aside.
4. Fry the peanuts, almonds and raisins for about 1 minute until well browned. Drain on a paper towel. Fry the cacao beans until they turn a slightly darker color, about 30 seconds, and remove to a paper towel. Drain, then crush the beans.
5. Fry all of the seeds and spices for 30 seconds, remove with a slotted spoon and return to the bowl. Discard the oil from the skillet.
6. Heat the remaining one-half cup oil in a Dutch oven. Add the puréed chile mixture and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often.
7. In a blender, combine the cacao beans, seeds, spices, nuts and raisins. Grind with enough chile soaking liquid to purée. Add to the chile mixture.
8. Grind the reserved roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic cloves, the thyme leaves and the parsley sprig in the blender with enough chile soaking liquid to purée, then add to the Dutch oven.
9. Crumble the fried tortilla into small pieces. Place the bolillo slices, tortilla pieces and plantain slices in the blender with 1 tablespoon salt. Add enough soaking liquid to blend. Add this to the Dutch oven. Add the chopped chocolate and stir until dissolved. Add sugar to taste.
10. Stir constantly over medium heat until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency and becomes very dark. Strain the sauce and return to a clean pot. Place over low heat. Discard remaining chile soaking liquid. Makes 10 cups of sauce.
1 (8-pound) turkey or 2 whole chickens, cut into serving pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into quarters
4 bay leaves
4 whole garlic cloves, skin
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
3/4 cup Mexican crema for garnish
1. Wash the turkey or chicken and place in a Dutch oven or large stockpot. Add water to cover. Add the onion, bay leaves, garlic cloves and salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the poultry from the pot. Strain the stock and set aside.
2. Return the poultry to the pot and pour in the mole sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer and continue to cook until cooked through, an additional 15 to 20 minutes for chicken, 30 to 40 minutes for turkey, adding stock as needed to thin the sauce. Reserve remaining stock for another use.
3. To serve, place a serving of poultry on each plate and cover generously with mole sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Drizzle crema on the poultry and around the plate. Serve with Mexican or white rice. Freeze leftover mole in an airtight container.
Each of 12 servings with one-half cup sauce: 582 calories; 36 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 36 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 125 mg. cholesterol; 628 mg. sodium.
Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Note: From Maria Lopez of the Guelaguetza restaurants in Koreatown. In Oaxaca, this mild, sweet mole is served with chicken or fried pork. Some brands of Mexican chocolate, such as Ibarra, are widely available; a tablet is 3.1 ounces.
1 large chicken, cut into pieces
1/2 small onion, peeled
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion, peel on
2 1/4 pounds (about 7) plum tomatoes
1 small clove garlic
3/4cup sesame seeds
5 black peppercorns
5 whole cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 stick cinnamon
6 ancho chiles
12 guajillo chiles
3 tablespoons oil
2 tablets Mexican chocolate, chopped
Fine dry bread crumbs, if needed
1 cup sugar, or more to taste
1. Wash the chicken pieces and place in a large pot. Add enough water to cover and add the peeled half onion, garlic and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth and set aside. Strain the broth and reserve.
2. In the meantime, wrap the unpeeled onion in foil and roast it in a 400-degree oven until soft, about 50 minutes. Unwrap and peel the onion and set it aside.
3. Roast the whole tomatoes in a large dry skillet until softened, about 10 minutes. Place the tomatoes in a bowl. Roast the garlic quickly in the same skillet for about 1 to 2 minutes and add to the tomatoes.
4. Wipe out the skillet and roast, separately, the almonds, raisins and sesame seeds; add to the tomatoes. Next, roast together the peppercorns, cloves, oregano and cinnamon until fragrant and add to the tomatoes.
5. Remove the stems, veins and seeds from the chiles. Roast the chiles in the same dry skillet until fragrant and softened but not dark, about 2 to 3 minutes.
6. Working in batches, spoon the tomato mixture from the bowl into the jar of a blender with the roasted onion and the chiles. Blend together with some of the reserved chicken stock until smooth and fluid. Strain.
7. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the blended mixture and the chopped chocolate and stir until dissolved, about 10 minutes. The texture should be fluid. Add bread crumbs to thicken if the sauce is too thin. If it's too thick, add more broth. Stir in the sugar and salt to taste and cook another 10 minutes. The flavor should be distinctly sweet.
8. To serve, place a portion of chicken on a plate and pour the mole sauce over.
Each serving with one-half cup sauce: 699 calories; 46 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams fiber; 37 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 147 mg. cholesterol; 128 mg. Sodium
Frida's green mole
Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes, largely unattended
Note: From Yerika Muñoz, executive chef at Frida Mexican Cuisine in Beverly Hills. Muñoz serves this sauce over chicken as well as pork.
3 1/2- to 4-pound pork shoulder roast, fat trimmed
6 tablespoons oil, divided
6 cups chicken broth, divided, plus 1/4 to 1/2 cup if needed
1. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven. Add the pork shoulder and sear on all sides. Pour 2 cups chicken broth into the pan and cover. Place in a 325-degree oven and cook until the meat is extremely tender and easily pulled apart with a fork, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
2. Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet. Add the onion, garlic and tomatillos and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the peanuts and the raw pepitas and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the cilantro, epazote, lettuce, tortilla pieces, bolillo slices and chiles. Stir in the remaining chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the chiles are soft and flavors have blended, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Let the mixture cool slightly, then blend in batches until smooth. Add a little water or broth (one-fourth to one-half cup) if necessary to make a thick but pourable sauce.
4. Return the sauce to the pan and heat to serving temperature. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste. Makes 6 cups sauce.
5. To serve, shred the cooked pork and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the top and sprinkle with pepitas.
Each serving with one-half cup sauce: 602 calories; 48 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 40 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 139 mg. cholesterol; 848 mg. sodium