Did you celebrate Mole Day this past Monday? I almost missed it, but a friend pointed it out to me in . The day evidently celebrates the number of avocados that can fit in an Erlenmeyer flask, or some other strange chemistry term. My friend, who evidently knows no more chemistry than I do, chose to celebrate little furry critters that tear up lawns.
I’ve never lived anyplace where I would run into moles, but I suspect that being a good Texan, I would be inclined to shoot them. Hell, I don’t even slow down for speed bumps because they look too much like armadillos.
So, I celebrated Mole Day in true southwestern style: The Doc and I went to our favorite Mexican Restaurant—Habanero’s—where Felix prepared mole poblano for us.
Naturally, I will explain. Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) means sauce in Spanish, but that is a completely inadequate definition of the word. France has sauces that are meant to lightly enhance the flavor of a main ingredient. Hollandaise sauce enhances fresh blanched asparagus.
With mole, it is the other way around. Mole is cooked and it is a complex mixture of multiple ingredients—usually chilis and nuts. Once prepared, it is the bulk of the meal, the meat is just a delivery vehicle for the sauce.
The word actually comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word mōlli, meaning sauce or stew. Today, the word survives in guacamole (literally ‘avocado’ and ‘sauce’) or molcajete, a native mortar (literally ‘sauce’ and ‘bowl’).
There is a vast difference between salsas and mole. A salsa is a concoction of chopped raw ingredients that is meant to spooned on the top of a taco, which is why, in America, salsas are now outselling ketchup. A mole, by comparison, is a carefully prepared and cooked dish by itself. If salsa were a beverage, it would be beer. Mole would be a delicate anejo tequila, aged in an oak barrel.
Which makes it impossible to understand why, if you mention mole to most Americans, they say, “Mole? Oh, yeah. The chocolate sauce. No thanks.”
First off, there are many, many different kinds of mole—not just Mole Poblano, that does indeed have a small amount of chocolate among the thirty assorted ingredients that a good cook will carefully mix together over the two days that the dish requires to prepare. Reducing the complexity of mole poblano to a mere chocolate sauce would be the equivalent of referring to roast suckling pig as bacon served with an apple.
Coming home from the restaurant, I was reminded of the original name for Mole Poblano, mole de olor, or the fragrant sauce. This, of course, was because my wife had brought half her dinner home in a box. This seems to be some sort of rule my wife has, since we never seem to leave a restaurant without a box. Tonight, smelling the dark brown mole sauce, I decided my wife had the right idea. (Come about midnight, I may have a midnight snack.)
There are many, many competing stories about the origin of mole poblano. One version says that Montezuma served Hernan Cortez mole con guajalote (turkey). Another version has the nuns at Puebla’s Convent of Santa Rosa working frantically to prepare a dish to honor a visit from the Archbishop. While carefully roasting peppers and walnuts, adding stale breadcrumbs and chicken stock, a box containing chocolate was accidentally knocked over, spilling its contents into the chili sauce.
Note. Perhaps this is why when I visited the town of Puebla back almost fifty years ago, a friend told me that the only people who made mole better than his mother were all nuns. I can’t confirm this as, so far, I have received none from nuns.
While the mole poblano literally means the sauce of Puebla—where the convent is located—the state of Oaxaca also claims to be the origin of the spicy dish. Oaxaca calls itself the “home of seven moles”, all of which contain chili peppers but not necessarily chocolate. And while all of them are delicious, most are almost impossible to find north of the border. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find a good Mexican restaurant that offers an authentic dish of mole.
What you can find in most grocery stores are two varieties of bottled “Mole Sauce”. Not only is this redundant, but it is a pale reflection of the dish that normally takes more than a day to prepare. If you buy your sauce in the jar, you can choose between Mole Poblano and Mole Verde—literally green sauce—which is made from pumpkin seeds.
While I frequently use the bottled sauces, I know that I’m not getting real mole. It is kind of like eating a bowl of chili. I know that I should make it from scratch, but it’s easier to just open a can of Wolf Brand Chili, even though the ingredients include about as much oatmeal as meat. Adding a bottle of mole poblano and chicken to the crockpot is just way too easy, and a career as a state employee ruined me for real work.
By the time you read this, it is about time to start planning the menu for your Día de los Muertos party. Obviously, you should prepare a mole—just be sure to serve it with a good Mexican beer. I suggest Tecate or Negra Modelo.
As we say here in New Mexico, "La comida Mexicana sin cerveza es como hacer el amor sin besar." For you pendejo gringos, that means "Would you like refried beans with that?”