Crossing the Mole Barrier in Oaxaca
Story and photos by Darrin DuFord

Under an Iron Chef competitor's tutelage, our author aims to separate truth from tall tale in the story of Oaxacan mole.

Cooking Mole

She expected me to pinch it.

A woman in an apron with a faded logo had just thrust a large metal kitchen spoon toward my chest, the utensil holding a ball of her creation, black and vaguely moist, like used coffee grounds. It was a sample of dried mole negro, or black mole, the most complex mole of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, offered for my consideration.

Pan de Yema

Day of the Dead figurine

It was November and lively skulls, painted on faces of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) revelers and stuck onto the tops of anthropomorphic loaves of pan de yema (egg yolk bread), still dominated the streets of the city of Oaxaca. My wife and I were at the Mercado de la Merced, following Pilar Cabrera, co-owner and chef of the restaurant La Olla. She was rounding up ingredients for her Day of the Dead cooking class, and we were her assistants. At Pilar's encouragement, I dug my bare fingertips into the vendor's mole as countless others had done throughout the day.

By the time the concentrated mole's smokiness and sweetness caught up with its upfront heat, we had left the stall and moved on. But Pilar did not buy any mole, because we would be making our own later. Throughout the morning, Pilar had enlisted her students to carry the various ingredients for our feast of quesadillas with squash blossoms, salsa roja, chicken with mole negro—a Day of the Dead tradition—and rice with yerbabuena (an herb similar to spearmint). My wife and I were the proud sherpas of corn masa, garlic, and mangoes, the last item's destiny to be discovered later.

No Certificate Needed

Slap slap slap went the continuous swings of cleavers chopping up unrefrigerated chicken carcasses, golden yellow and stacked up, stiff feet poking into the aisles like surplus props for a comedy show. The Mercado de la Merced is just one of several markets in the colonial grid of Oaxaca, whose state of the same name lies at the base of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec and claims its amalgam of gastronomic influences from both coasts as well as the mountainous interior.

Pilar viewed this outing as more than just a shopping trip. She also enjoyed catching up on news from surrounding towns with the vendors. She had just led us to a spread of baskets filled with spices and fruits along a wall, and after exchanging news with the sellers about friends' recent marriages, Pilar told us, "I love to stop here, because all of these vendors are small vendors coming from different villages and just bring a few things for the day. Like these tomatillos."

Squeezing past shoppers burdened with bags of produce, Pilar pointed to a bin of knobby, lobed tomatoes known as tomates criollos. "Everything we call criollo for us means growing locally. Here, nobody has a certificate, but most of these grow around the city, and grow in small production," said Pilar in the glow of someone who has found the rewarding intersection of passion and work.

Tomatoes Criollos

Pilar and her twelve students left the market carrying ingredients as diverse as avocado leaves, cloves, bread, almonds, and cumin seeds, just to name five of the almost thirty ingredients that would contribute to her mole sauce alone. But the bulk of the work lay ahead of us.

Quick—Feed the Fat Man Something

In the States, a trip to a Mexican restaurant usually means choosing from a menu containing one mole dish. The mole. And that mole normally ends up being a variant of mole poblano, the Mexican state of Puebla's take on the thick sauce—one of the sweetest varieties, heavy on chocolate and sugar. The sauce may be prepared even sweeter than in Puebla once the recipe crosses north of the Rio Grande to appeal to America's sweet tooth.

Knowing that our experiences in the States had only offered a tantalizingly small window into the nuanced diversity of mole was one of the reasons my wife and I had decided to travel to Oaxaca, where moles may be made with or without chocolate and with or without chilies. They span the color wheel from army green to pearly white to the black of old motor oil in need of a change. They can converse with the tongue in fruity, playful nibbles, or with smoldering fire. But what is mole, anyway?

The story of mole's origin is as complex and disputed as its list of ingredients. One of the most festive but least plausible stories involves a colonial-era convent in Puebla, whose nuns had just found out that the portly archbishop would be popping in for a surprise visit. The nuns scrambled to prepare something special for the guest, and improvised by mixing a little bit of everything they had on hand—nuts, stale bread, chilies, chocolate, and whatever spices they could scrounge. They slaughtered a turkey and ladled the frankensauce over the roasted carcass. The archbishop was so enchanted by the dish that he absentmindedly wiped his sauce-smeared face on his robe. Okay, I just made up that last part.

A more realistic history, presented by food historian Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, traces mole's lineage to a cross-pollination of two culinary methods: European sauce-thickening techniques involving nuts and bread, and the Mesoamerican practice of using ground dried chilies to color, flavor, and thicken sauces. While mole most likely owes its existence to this melding of two cultures, its name is a derivative of molli, the Nahuatl word for sauce.

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