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 Asuncion 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 Nahuatl, 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 Tipica 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 www.mexicochoco.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 pureed, 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 Munoz, chef of Frida Mexican Cuisine in Beverly Hills, also uses pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tomatillos, lettuce and cilantro along with poblano, serrano and jalapeno 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 pureeing, 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.