Taste of Oaxaca – Moles

Oaxaca is known as the land of 7 moles. So what is a mole, exactly? It can be defined as a mixture of spices, or just simply as a mixture. To be sure, there are plenty of mixtures or moles in Oaxaca. Based on what I learned, the seven are: Negro, Verde, Amarillo, Coloradito, Almendrado, Mancha Manteles, and Chichilo. Some regions have other moles in addition to these seven. There are also many versions of these mole recipes, using different chiles or different proportions of them. Each family has their own recipe, handed down from one generation to the next. Some believe that moles were post-Hispanic and was created in the monastaries, but others have found evidence that moles existed in pre-Hispanic cuisine based on archeological evidence. Either way, we were lucky enough to learn how to make three of them (Negro, Verde, and Amarillo) in one day with Pilar Cabrera at her cooking school, Casa de los Sabores.

Just like the first class we had with Pilar, we started at the market. This time we went to the Mercado de Merced, which is larger than the Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. This time we also looked at chiles more. A key ingredient to Mole Negro is the use of a chile called Chilhuacle Negro. It is very difficult to find outside of Oaxaca. Needless to say I made sure that I brought back a small stash home with me. For the Mole Negro, in addition to the Chilhuacle Negro chiles, we also used Mulato Chiles which are dried poblanos, and Pasilla Mexicano chiles. The Chilhuacle Amarillo chile is even harder to find than its Negro version, and is probably the most expensive chile in Oaxaca – about 500 pesos per kilogram, which translates to roughly $20/lb. If you’re a foreigner likely you’d be charged even higher prices at the market ;). Just a fact of life. We used a few of these in our Mole Amarillo, in addition to Guajillo chiles, Amarillo chiles, and Chilcoxtle chiles. Chilcoxtle chiles are also hard to find outside of Oaxaca.  For our Mole Verde, we used Jalapenos.

We also made stops at a chocolate atole stand, which is a chocolate drink that’s thickened with a corn-based gruel for a thick drink. In the photo, the woman is making it in an jarro (ceramic jar, vase, pitcher) and using a molinillo, or a wooden ‘whisk’ if you will to create the foam at the top of the drink. It’s absolutely essential when making chocolate atole, chocolate de agua or chocolate de leche that it’s served with foam. If you don’t, it means you’re a bad cook. We also stopped by a stand and watched a young woman from a family of tejate makers make tejate. Tejate is another pre-hispanic drink that’s made with ground chocolate, ground mamey seeds and other ingredients. It’s mixed by hand until it turns into a thick paste.

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Now, on to making mole! Nearly all the ingredients in the Mole Negro are toasted until charred, so it’s essential to do it outdoors in a well ventilated place. Although it does have a LOT of ingredients, once you’ve got everything collected it’s really not that tough to get together. It’s really important to grind the chiles up separately from the rest of the ingredients, as the skins get in the way of getting a very smooth paste. Speaking of grinding, way back in the day before electricity or machines, corn, chiles, and salsa – everything was ground up by hand with a metate and a lamano, or a molcajete and a tejolote (aka mortar and pestle). Unfortunately I don’t have photos here but a metate is basically a big flat rock and a lamano is like a rolling pin. They’re used together to grind up these coarse materials by hand into a fine paste. Although one could choose to do the grinding by hand as the presence of molinos in the US is fairly small, a food processor or a blender would also work, provided that one strains out the skins and un-ground up bits with a fine sieve or a food mill. You can see that this was the method used for the Mole Verde.

Although not a lot of chiles are used in Mole Verde, there are a lot of herbs and vegetables used in it that gives it a distinctive flavor and color. Specifically, epazoteand hierba santa. I was been able to find hierba santa at Casa Lucas in the Mission in San Francisco this week, but didn’t find any epazote there at the same time. I’ve heard that cilantro can be used as an approximate substitute for epazote.

As a side note, Seasons of My Heart is an Oaxacan cookbook which includes many recipes including moles. I’m told it used to be a PBS series, which I haven’t watched.

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