Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
Dunking a piece of tortilla into a bowl of velvety sauce, I place a section of chicken in the center, wrapping the edges over both sides like a spicy chili-chocolate sleeping bag. With this, I ingest the last of my mole negro from a vendor at the organic market on Calle Rayon in the south section of the city of Oaxaca. Satiated, I hand over 65 pesos and head back into the street where the afternoon sun moves a pair of summery arms over my shoulders.
The capital city of Oaxaca state is famous for many reasons – a plethora of cultural events, UNESCO World Heritage City status, and perhaps the biggest draw, the cuisine. From quesillo cheese to crispy tlayudas, there is no shortage of delectable offerings on constant rotation. At the heart of these delicacies lies the crowning jewel that graces the tables of fiestas and fine dining establishments alike – mole.
This complex sauce is generally comprised of a range of chilies, spices, dried fruit and nuts, chocolate and tomatoes. Preparation takes some love and care, often incorporating anywhere from 20 – 40 different ingredients. Each region of the state boasts a particular type of mole. Luckily, if sampling all of the variations is your goal, you can find all seven in various kitchens around the city.
Chipotle and guajillo chilies commingle with raisins, mashed sweet plantains, chocolate and sesame seeds for a rich sauce that is orangey-red in color.
Mole Poblano (Mole Rojo)
A variety that serves as the national dish of Mexico and is the most popular of all of the types. This sauce is used to top everything from chicken to vegetables, and merges chilies, raisins, peanuts, with only a hint of chocolate, rendering the final result slightly sweeter and spicier than the others.
A lack of chocolate, dried fruit or nuts provides a spicier sauce that can often be found inside homemade tamales or served with vegetables. This version incorporates guajillo chilies, yerba santa leaves, along with masa harina.
An excellent addition to meat dishes, this sauce starts with a beef stock base, and combines three types of chilies (arbol, guajillo and ancho), avocado leaves and corn flour to thicken.
A fresh take on the usual chocolate-based mole, this version combines parsley, tomatillos, green chilies, pumpkin seeds, yerba santa and a strong-tasting Mexican herb called epazote.
Tomatoes, cinnamon, onion, chorizo, fresh pineapple, vanilla, pureed plantain and ancho chilies team up to create this zingy sauce.
The most complex of all of the moles – this variety unites sweet with spicy in a wave of chocolate, chilies, dried fruit and nuts, plantains, tomato, garlic, onion, chicken stock, hoja santa (reminiscent of black licorice), cloves, cinnamon and cumin.
For those with a free weekend, it’s well worth stocking up on supplies at the market to make a giant vat of mole to eat throughout the week – a process that works well as a Sunday group activity. If cooking is not on the roster, those who will be in Oaxaca in July for Guelaguetza would do well to participate in the Festival de los Moles on July 16 and 17, 2015. This event provides samples of mole created by chefs from an extensive list of local restaurants, so be sure to arrive hungry.
As the sweet scent of plantain dances through your senses, arm-in-arm with spicy chilies and fine Oaxacan chocolate, this taste extravaganza will fill your belly and lead you to a peaceful slumber. Slowly, you will drift away, tucked in and dreaming in a chili-chocolate sleeping bag.