Mexican moles – Puebla vs Oaxaca

The Feria de los Moles is a unique cultural event.

Chef Jose Cepeda Gonzalez (left) holds out a plate of goat mole to the Mexican consul in Los Angeles, Carlos Manuel Sada. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Chef Jose Cepeda Gonzalez (left) holds out a plate of goat mole to the Mexican consul in Los Angeles, Carlos Manuel Sada.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The Feria de los Moles, a popular Los Angeles festival highlighting the sauces called moles (pronounced “mohlehs”), was presented as a competition between Oaxaca and Puebla, the two Mexican states famous for these classic preparations.
Mole is a cooked sauce usually made from ground chilies (hot peppers) and enriched with ground nuts or seeds, or it can be a dish made with such a sauce.
The most famous one, mole poblano, originated in Puebla in east-central Mexico.
Neighboring Oaxaca (pronounced “wahaka”), in southwestern Mexico bordering the Pacific Ocean, is known as the “land of the seven moles.” In fact, said Oaxacan chef Candida Hernandez at a press preview of the festival, each region of Oaxaca has more than five moles, and there might be 90 or more different kinds.
On display there was black mole, which is flavored with chocolate and looks like chocolate sauce, and red, green and yellow moles; some were thick sauces, some were soupy.
The Feria de los Moles is a unique cultural event, said Mexican Consul-General in Los Angeles Carlos Manuel Sada. The large number of moles came about because each is made with local ingredients, he noted, stating proudly that Mexico is one of a handful of countries recognized by UNESCO for the merits of their traditional cuisine.
Mole usually has four kinds of chilies, said Maite Gomez- Rejon in a lecture we attended on the history of mole at La Plaza de Culturas y Artes, a museum of Mexican culture in LA. Black and red moles are the most popular. The celebrated mole poblano is the result of the coming together of the Old World and the New; in addition to chilies and chocolate, it includes ingredients that are not native to Mexico – raisins, dried apricots, almonds, walnuts and sesame seeds. Mole poblano is believed to have first been made 250 years after the Spanish conquest, said Gomez-Rejon, when these ingredients became available.
“To understand moles is to understand a basic fact about the kitchen philosophy of Oaxaca as opposed to other cuisines,” wrote Zarela Martinez in The Food and Life of Oaxaca. “At a festive French meal, it’s self-evident that the main dish will be some kind of meat, poultry, or fish skillfully treated... (roasted, grilled, braised, poached, sautéed, etc.) and served with... a sauce that complements it elegantly.
“Oaxacans see it the other way. Meats are most often cooked in just a few ways, which may at first seem monotonous to diners from other cultures... The meat is incidental... it tends to be a plain, understated foil to the fascinating textures and nuances of the sauces, which are the true piece de resistance.”
At the festival preview, we sampled tamales of corn dough filled with chicken in red mole and steamed in banana leaves, made by Oaxacan-born chef Socorro Manzano. She told us that the main components of her red mole are toasted dried chilies –10 different kinds. To these she adds oregano, bay leaves, cloves, cumin, cinnamon and black and white pepper, and thickens the mole with blended toasted tortillas. She noted that the mole is very rich because it has a lot of nuts – almonds and walnuts, as well as sesame seeds and a bit of chocolate. In spite of all those chilies, the sweet mole was only moderately hot.
The star of the mole festival was guest chef Jose Cepeda Gonzalez of Los Maragatos restaurant in Tehuacán, Puebla, who came to prepare mole de caderas, or goat hip-bone mole with red chili sauce. This specialty, a Mixtec dish of the indigenous Mesoamerican peoples in Puebla, is made only one month of the year, around October.
Mole de caderas should be cooked for eight hours so the meat and bones give the sauce good flavor, said the 23-year-old chef, who told us he started cooking with his grandmother when he was five years old. The cooked goat meat and its broth simmer with a fried puree of cooked tomatoes, tomatillos (green husk tomatoes) and dried and fresh chilies blended with chopped onion and garlic. During the last few minutes of simmering, the chef adds cilantro (fresh coriander), avocado leaves, green beans and guajes, which resemble snow peas. The bright red, pleasantly spicy mole was served in bowls like soup, with hot corn tortillas for dunking.
Mole was served in many forms at the festival – as a sauce for chicken, a coating for tamales and a filling for tacos and sandwiches. In addition to chicken in mole poblano sprinkled with sesame seeds, we sampled two kinds of pipian, a type of mole made with pumpkin seeds – green pipian, flavored with fresh herbs; and red pipian, made with peanuts, tomatoes and red chilies. (See recipe.) Although all were made with chilies, none of those we tasted were hot.
The most popular dish among festival-goers was the tlayuda, a specialty of Oaxaca made with large toasted corn tortillas. Cooks spread mole on the tortillas the way tomato sauce is spread on pizza, then added toppings such as chicken, grilled meat, sausage, cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato wedges and avocado slices.
“Mole is not a dish for every day,” said Manzano. “When someone is talking about making mole, it’s for a family reunion or a big celebration. Mole means it’s party time.”
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook.
Pati’s Red Pipian
“Pipian is one variety of Mexico’s many mole sauces,” wrote Pati Jinich in Pati’s Mexican Table. “A hefty base of toasted and ground pumpkin seeds gives the sauce a velvety edge.”
To make it, she combines pumpkin seeds with peanuts and sesame seeds in a sauce of charred tomatoes, garlic, onion, spices and dried mild chilies. Jinich uses 55 grams (2 ounces) guajillo chilies and 30 grams (1 ounce) ancho chilies in her sauce; use any dried mild or medium-hot chilies available at your market.
You can cook fillets of fish, such as tilapia or sole, in the sauce, or serve the sauce with roast chicken. Serve rice on the side.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 8 mild or semi-hot dried chilies (about 85 gr. or 3 ounces), rinsed, stemmed and seeded
❖ ½ cup hulled raw pumpkin seeds
❖ 3 Tbsp. sesame seeds
❖ 4 whole cloves
❖ 450 gr. (1 pound) ripe tomatoes, whole
❖ 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
❖ 1 thick slice white onion
❖ ½ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
❖ ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
❖ ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
❖ 2 tsp. salt
❖ 2 tsp. dark brown sugar
❖ 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
❖ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
❖ 4 cups broth
Heat a 30-cm. (12-inch) skillet over medium- low heat until hot. Lay the dried peppers flat in the pan and toast them for 10 to 15 seconds per side, until they become fragrant and pliable and their color darkens.
Transfer the toasted peppers to a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 10 minutes.
Set aside.
Toast the pumpkin seeds in the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring often, until you hear popping sounds, like popcorn, and they begin to brown lightly, 3 to 4 minutes; take care not to burn them. Set aside. Add the sesame seeds and toast until light brown, 2 to 3 minutes; set aside. Toast the cloves, stirring often, until they turn darker and are fragrant, 30 to 40 seconds. Set aside.
Char the tomatoes, garlic and onion under the broiler, in a dry skillet or on an outdoor grill at medium heat, turning occasionally, until nicely charred and softened, 10 to 12 minutes.
Remove from heat.
When garlic is cool enough to handle, peel it and place in a blender or food processor along with the tomatoes, onions and the chilies, with 1 cup of their cooking liquid. Add pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cloves, peanuts, cinnamon, salt, pepper, brown sugar and vinegar, and puree until smooth.
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the puree and broth and simmer, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, stirring often so the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom, until thickened and deepened in color. Serve hot.
Chicken in Dark Mole Sauce
This dish, flavored with tomatoes, chilies, almonds, cinnamon, chocolate and dried fruit, is inspired by mole poblano but is much less elaborate. You can either bake the chicken in the mole sauce, or simmer it in the sauce over low heat. Instead of cooking chicken in broth, you can make the mole with prepared broth and serve the sauce with roast chicken. Rice is the traditional accompaniment.
Makes 6 servings
❖ 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
❖ 1.4-1.5 kg. (3 pounds) chicken thighs or drumsticks
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper
❖ 6 mild or semi-hot dried peppers, rinsed, stemmed, seeded and torn in pieces
❖ 1 425-gr. (15-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained
❖ ½ medium onion, cut in chunks
❖ 2 garlic cloves, peeled
❖ ½ cup almonds, lightly toasted
❖ 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds, lightly toasted
❖ ½ slice dry bread or ½ dry pita, torn in pieces
❖ 2 dried apricots (optional)
❖ 3 Tbsp. raisins
❖ ¼ to ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
❖ ¼ to ½ tsp. ground coriander
❖ Pinch ground cloves
❖ 30 gr. (1 ounce) unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy stew pan.
Add chicken pieces in batches and brown lightly on all sides over medium heat, removing each piece as it browns. Return all pieces to pan.
Add 3 cups water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until chicken is tender.
Put dried peppers in a bowl and cover with hot water; soak for 1 hour or until softened.
Drain chilies, discarding liquid.
Remove chicken from broth. Pour broth into a bowl and skim off the fat.
Put chilies in a blender or food processor.
Add tomatoes, onion, garlic, almonds, 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, pita, apricots, raisins, cinnamon, coriander, cloves and ½ cup chicken broth. Process to a coarse puree.
In pan in which chicken was cooked, heat 2 tablespoons oil. Add puree and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes or until thickened. Add 2 cups chicken broth and chocolate; stir over low heat until chocolate melts.
Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until sauce is thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Skim excess fat from sauce.
Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Discard chicken skin and cut meat from bones in large strips.
Put in a shallow baking dish. Pour sauce over chicken.
Bake chicken, covered, for 30 minutes or until hot. If sauce is too thick, thin it with a few tablespoons broth. Sprinkle chicken with remaining toasted sesame seeds, and serve.