Every so often, during a quiet, unguarded moment of blissful nothingness, I find myself drifting back to places I visited sometime during my time as a near-full time traveling bum.
In this manner, I keep fond memories alive. Invariably my blissful sojourn into the past ends with some special dish or something food-related that I tasted. This is when dreams have to become reality, and I dive into a pile of cookbooks or drill down into my memory bank to recreate the dish. This is sometimes a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost.
But what is an obsessive man to do?
I have many fond memories of Mexico. Not that I have seen a lot, but what I did see made a huge impression on me. The people. The colours. The art. The chaos. The terrible traffic. The music. The hedonistic tequila and mescaline. And then, above all the moles – the sauces and the dishes (I never got into a dodgy taxi so I can’t tell you about the abductions, forced drinking and ATM withdrawals at gunpoint).
The true origins of Mexico’s world famous mole sauces are lost in the mist of antiquity. Among the most popular versions of the discovery of the first mole, are only a few communalities: a clergyman of some import (usually an archbishop), some clergy-people of lesser import (nuns or a bishop) and a whole lot of herbs and spices, especially chilies.
Moles are extremely complicated dishes to prepare, if you want to do it properly that is. Mexico’s most famous mole – mole poblano – has, on average, 20 ingredients and some Oaxacan varieties, over 30.
Mole – derived from the Aztec’s molli – describes both the sauce and the stew. In my (very limited) experience, the sauce is the stew. Without the sauce, there is no stew, and definitely no mole.
Moles exist in many varieties determined often by its origins and key ingredients. Mole poblano originated in the mountain city of Puebla, and gets its rich dark colour from chocolate. Oaxaca has red, green, black and yellow varieties; some are mild, some sweet, some spicy and hot.
Not all Mexican sauces are moles. Rick Bayless in his book Authentic Mexican, mentions the following criteria for moles: they are cooked sauces, they are often thickened with nuts and seeds, they are chili sauces and made with special herbs and spices.
For a good few weeks after my return from Mexico, I cooked almost nothing but moles. It took me no time to figure out without the right chilies – mulato, ancho, and pasilla – my version of the classic mole poblano will always be doomed for failure. To this day, I abhor restaurants selling the chili-and-chocolate fantasy. If you want my advice: if it says “chili-chocolate”, and it is not ice cream, stay away – far away. In this country and on this continent anyway.
An authentic mole poblano demands – in addition to the three types of chilies, a bucket load of seeds and nuts, raisins, stale tortilla, and really good Mexican chocolate – also a few days of preparation and cooking. This is not a dish for those without perseverance and stamina. So I am not going to set you up for a disappointing experience telling you how to make Mexico’s favourite dish on the fly.
Luckily not all moles are equal in time, effort or ingredients. There are easier options, like this green one thickened with pepitas (pumpkin seeds). It also requires tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) a Mexican fruit related to the Cape Gooseberry. I have not yet come across tomatillos here locally, but really unripe, green tomatoes work well enough. This is a mole verde – green sauce – so make sure all the ingredients remain green in colour. Do not use ripe tomatoes or red chilies and use the freshest herbs you can get. It is not as heavy as some of the more traditional moles but quite delicious. I watched my sister-in-law happily eat half her body weight in mole verde and then queue for some ice cream. I have made mine with pork chops, but you could happily use it with chicken or even fish.