The Soul of the Mexicans, Part 3

Creating a Cuisine

Ancient Representations of Chiles
Ancient Representations of Chiles

The arrival of the Spanish in Mexico had a profound effect on the cuisine of the country as the ingredients the explorers brought with them soon transformed the eating habits of the Indians. However, the Aztecs and their descendants did not give up their beloved staples such as chiles, corn, and chocolate; they combined them with the new imports and thus created the basis for the Mexican cuisines of today.

Throughout the centuries, an astonishing variety in Mexican cooking developed as a result of geography. From the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico stretches more than two thousand miles to the deserts of the north, so the length and size of Mexico, combined with the fact that mountain ranges separate the various regions, led to the development of isolated regional cuisines. This geographical variety is the reason that the cooking of tropical Yucatán differs significantly from that of the deserts of Chihuahua and Sonora.

One common factor, though, in Mexican cookery is the prevalence of chile peppers. Unlike South America, where chiles are still mostly consumed by the Indian population, in Mexico everyone fell in love with the pungent pods. Chile peppers are Mexico’s most important vegetable crop; they are grown all over the country from the Pacific and Gulf Coasts to mountainous regions with an altitude above 8,000 feet. Approximately 200,000 acres of cultivated land produce betwee 500,000 and 650,000 tons of fresh pods and 30,000 tons of dry pods, making Mexico number six of the chile-producing countries of the world. Although more than thirty different varieties are grown or collected in Mexico, the anchos/poblanos, serranos, mirasols, and jalapeños account for seventy-five percent of the crop. In 1988, Mexico exported 2,529 metric tons of fresh or dried chiles worth $4.6 million into the United States.

In 1985, each Mexican consumed about fourteen pounds of green chile and nearly two pounds of dried chile. In fact, the Mexicans eat more chile per capita than onions or tomatoes. The favorite chiles are about evenly divided between those harvested fresh and those utilized in the dry form.

The serranos and jalapeños are grown for processing and the fresh market, where they are the chiles of choice for salsas. Over ninety percent of the Serrano crop is used fresh in homemade salsas such as our version of Pico de Gallo, which is known by quite a few other names. Serranos are also used in a popular cooked sauce, Tomatillo Sauce.

About sixty percent of the jalapeño crop is processed, either by canning or pickling or as commercial salsas. Of the remainder, twenty percent is used fresh and twenty percent is used in the production of chipotles, the smoked and dried form of the Jalapeño.

How Many Moles?

Perhaps the most famous Mexican chile dishes are the moles. The word mole, from the Náhuatl molli, means “mixture,” as in guacamole, a mixture of vegetables (guaca). Some sources say that the word is taken from the Spanish verb moler, meaning to grind. Whatever its precise origin, the word used by itself embraces a vast number of sauces utilizing every imaginable combination of meats, vegetables, spices, and flavorings–sometimes up to three dozen different ingredients. Not only are there many ingredients, there are dozens of variations on mole–red moles, green moles, brown moles, fiery moles, and even mild moles.

The earliest moles were simple compared with what was to come after the Spanish invasion. Ana M. de Benítez, who reconstructed pre-Columbian dishes based on de Sahagún’s descriptions, used four different chiles (ancho, mulato, pasilla, and chipotle), plus tomatoes, garlic, pumpkins, tomatillos, and chayote as the basis of her moles. The addition of Eastern Hemisphere ingredients such as almonds, raisins, garlic, cinnamon, and cloves would eventually transform the basic mole of the Aztecs into a true delicacy.

Mole poblano, originally called mole de olores (“fragrant mole”), is the sauce traditionally served on special occasions such as Christmas that combines chiles and chocolate, a popular and revered food of the Aztecs. Moctezuma’s court consumed fifty jugs of chile-laced hot chocolate a day, and warriors drank it to soothe their nerves before going into battle. However, the story of how chocolate was combined with chile sauces does not involve warriors, but rather nuns.

Legend holds that mole poblano was invented in the sixteenth century by the nuns of the convent of Santa Rosa in the city of Puebla. It seems that the archbishop was coming to visit, and the nuns were worried because they had no food elegant enough to serve someone of his eminence. So, they prayed for guidance and one of the nuns had a vision. She directed that everyone in the convent should begin chopping and grinding everything edible they could find in the kitchen. Into a pot went chiles, tomatoes, nuts, sugar, tortillas, bananas, raisins, garlic, avocados, and dozens of herbs and spices. The final ingredient was the magic one: chocolate. The chocolate, they reasoned, would smooth the flavor of the sauce by slighly cutting its heat. Then the nuns slaughtered their only turkey and served it with the mole sauce to the archbishop, who declared it the finest dish he had ever tasted.

This is a great legend, but a more likely scenario holds that the basic mole of the Aztecs was gradually transformed by a collision of cuisines. Regarding the use of chocolate, since that delicacy was reserved for Aztec royalty, the military nobility, and religious officials, perhaps Aztec serving girls at the convent gave a royal recipe to the nuns so they could honor their royalty, the archbishop. At any rate, the recipe for mole poblano was rescued from oblivion and became a holiday favorite. De Benítez noted: “In the book on Puebla cooking, published in Puebla in 1877, we find recipes for making forty-four kinds of mole; there are also sixteen kinds of manchamanteles (tablecloth stainers) which are dishes with different kinds of chiles.”

In Mexico today, cooks who specialize in moles are termed moleros, and they even have their own competition, the National Mole Fair held every year in October at the town of San Pedro Atocpan, just south of Mexico City. At the fair, thousands of people sample hundreds of different moles created by restaurateurs and mole wholesalers. This fair is the Mexican equivalent of chili con carne cookoffs in the United States; the moleros take great pride in their fiery creations and consider each mole a work of art in the same way that chili cookoff chefs regard their chili con carne. Often the preparation of a family mole recipe takes as long as three days. Their recipes are family secrets not to be revealed to others under any circumstances; indeed, they are passed down from generation to generation.

“If one of my children wants to carry on my business as a molero and is serious about it,” molero Villa Suarez told reporter William Stockton, I will tell them all the secrets when the time comes.” But he went on to indicate that if his children were not interested in becoming moleros, his secrets would die with him.

In 1963 a group of moleros formed a mole cooperative of sixty partners who banded together for the good of their craft. They shared equipment such as pulverizers and mills, and eventually organized a fair exclusively dedicated to mole, so they formed the Feria Nacional del Mole, the National Mole Fair, held in conjunction with the fairs of the local pueblos.

By 1982, the fair had grown so large that the committee moved the location and the date to accomodate all the visitors. The mole fair became a national event and was eventually placed on the Secretary of Tourism’s calendar of fairs and fiestas. Each year bigger and better events were presented. As a result, restaurants began featuring more mole specials and tourists had more opportunities to experience the various moles. The National Mole Fair has certainly become one of the premier chile pepper events in the world.

The color of a particular mole depends mostly upon the varieties of chiles utilized. A green mole consists mostly of poblano chiles while a red mole could contain three or four different varieties of dried red chiles, such as chiles de árbol, or cascabels. The brown and black moles owe their color to pasillas and anchos, both of which are sometimes called “chile negro” because of their dark hues when dried. The dark color of mole negro can also be the result of roasting the chiles until they are almost black, as is the custom in Oaxaca.

Other than chiles, there are literally dozens of other ingredients added to the various moles, including almonds, anise, bananas, chocolate, cinnamon, cilantro, cloves, coconut, garlic, onions, peanuts, peppercorns, piñons, pumpkin seeds, raisins, sesame seeds, toasted bread, tomatillos, tomatoes, tortillas, and walnuts. Undoubtedly, some moleros add coriander, cumin, epazote, oregano, thyme, and other spices to their moles.

But Puebla is not the only state in Mexico with a reputation for moles. Oaxaca, in the south, lays claim to seven unique moles–and dozens and dozens of variations. Susana Trilling, who owns the Seasons of My Heart cooking school located outside of Oaxaca city at Rancho Aurora, was our guide to the moles of Oaxaca. During a trip to her school, I was given lessons on preparing the famous mole negro Oaxaqueño, while Susana described her experiences with the seven famous moles. She later wrote about the moles in a Chile Pepper magazine article entitled: “My Search for the Seventh Mole.”

Susana wondered about the number seven, because there are seven regions in the state of Oaxaca, and, of course, seven days in the week. But then she read Tradiciones Gastronómicas Oaxaqueñas, in which the author, Ana Maria Guzmán de Vasquez Colmenares, noted: “There must be something magical in the number seven, for the number of Oaxacan moles coincides with the wonders of the world, the theological virtues, the wise men of Athens–and for their wisdom which elected the number seven to represent justice.”

“There may be seven moles,” say the locals, “but thousands and thousands of cooks each has their own private version of all of the moles, so how many does that make?” One magazine writer suggested: “Oaxaca should be the land of 200 moles!”

For the record, the seven moles are: mole negro, mole coloradito, mole verde, mole amarillo, mole rojo, manchas manteles (“tablecloth stainer”), and mole chichilo. They are all descendants of clemole, believed to be the original mole of Oaxaca. It was quite simple, being composed of ancho and pasilla chiles, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and coriander.

The Oaxacan moles are characterized by unusual chiles that are unique to the region. In a discussion with chile vendor Eliseo Ramirez, I learned that there are sixty chiles grown only in the state of Oaxaca and nowhere else in Mexico. Of those sixty, he carried about ten. Some of these unusal chiles in clude chiles de agua, which grow erect and are pointed at the end. The chiles chilhuacle, which are short and fat, come in two varieties, black and red. The red variety is called “the saffron of the poor” because a small amount of ground chilhuacle rojo gives are similar coloring to foods. Other unique chiles are the red-orange chiles onzas, the yellow costeño, and the pasilla Oaxaqueña (sometimes called pasilla Mexicana), a smoked pasilla that adds a chipotle-like flavor to moles.

In the market, I also learned an easy way to make moles. Instead of tediously grinding all the ingredients on a metate, the cooks would go to the Benito Juárez market, buy all their chiles, nuts, and seeds, and have them custom-ground in the special molinos, or mills in another section of the market. The result is a dark paste which is later converted into a mole sauce.

Susana Trilling describes the more tedious process: “The chiles are toasted black, soaked and ground, and blended with fried tomatoes, tomatillos, and roasted garlic and onions. Then come nuts and seeds–some toasted, some fried. Almonds, peanuts, pecans, chile seeds, and sesame seeds. There are almost always more sesame seeds than any other seed or nut. They have to be fried slowly and carefully, with lots of love and attention. Hence the affectionate Mexican dicho (saying): “You are the sesame seed of my mole.”

There are other special ingredients which characterize the different Oaxacan moles. Avocado leaves, difficult to find in the U.S. and Canado, are used in mole negro. Fresh green herbs such as epazote and parsley are the source of the green color of mole verde. Pineapple and banana are added to manchas manteles, while string beans, chayote and chiles costeños are ingredients in mole amarillo.

Many different meats are added to moles, from chicken to beef to fish, but by far the most common meat served is turkey. In fact, turkey is so important in mole negro, that Mexican writer Manuel Toussaint noted that the turkey in the mole was as important as the eagle in the Mexican flag, and another writer suggested that to refuse to eat mole negro was a crime of treason against the homeland!

Part 1 is Here. Part 2 is Here.


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AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

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