The word mole comes from the Nahuatl molli, which means “mixture,” and is used to refer to a number of sauces prepared all over Mexico. There’s some controversy as to which spot is the birthplace of mole (Puebla, Tlaxcala and Oaxaca all claim the prize) and when exactly these sauces were created. What we do know about mole sauces, however, is that they are the perfect culinary example of the mestizaje that took place in Mexico after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. They combine native ingredients such as chilies, fruits and seeds with elements brought by the newcomers, including nuts, exotic fruits and even bread.
Moles, just like many other Mexican dishes, vary from state to state. In Oaxaca, the variety is particularly staggering. The state is divided into seven regions, each of which prepares a unique kind of mole. Furthermore, los siete moles de Oaxaca (Oaxaca’s seven moles) are the most representative throughout Mexico. And among them, mole negro takes the prize for most ingredients – 34 in total – including six types of chilies (chilhuacle negro, mulato, pasilla, ancho, guajillo and chipotle), plantain, ginger, almonds, peanuts and avocado leaves, among others. It also has the most complex flavor.
Amarillo, coloradito, verde and rojo are moles that are identified by their color. The first is prepared with chilcoxtle, ancho, guajillo and costeño chilies, as well as tomatillos and, uniquely, masa (nixtamalized corn dough), all of which give it its yellow hue. Coloradito is a sweet mole made with ancho and guajillo chilies, tomato, sugar and canela, which together produce a light red color. Herbs contribute the green color of mole verde, which is made from tomatillos, parsley, epazote and hierba santa, an herb commonly used in Oaxacan cuisine. Of the seven moles, mole rojo is the spiciest, and its ingredients include chocolate, sesame seeds, oregano, tomato and guajillo and ancho chilies.
Estofado is a sour mole from the region known as El Istmo. Its tartness comes from capers and olives. Last but not least, the most spectacular of the seven, and our personal favorite, is mole chichilo. This mole is only prepared for especial occasions because of how difficult it is to prepare and because of the high price tag of one of its ingredients, chile chilhuacle negro, a chili that is indigenous to La Cañada region of Oaxaca. This mole’s unique flavor comes from the burning of tortillas and chili seeds until they turn into ash, and it manages to be both bold and delicate at the same time.
In Oaxaca City it’s easy to find some of these moles at restaurants and markets. However, to try a great dish that featured three different types of moles, we were directed to Quince Letras in the center of the city. The restaurant is run by Celia Florián, a chef and zealous keeper of Oaxacan food and traditions and an active member of the Slow Food movement in Oaxaca.
Florián uses local products to prepare her recipes, which were handed down from her grandmother and have been part of the restaurant’s menu for 23 years. She welcomed us into the restaurant and offered a plate of quesillo (string cheese) with chapulines (grasshoppers) wrapped in hierba santa. It was the perfect start to what turned into one of the best dinners we’ve had in Oaxaca so far.
As a main dish we had a plato oaxaqueño, a selection of some of the most iconic Oaxacan foods: cecina, tasajo, chile relleno (a deep-fried stuffed pepper filled with pulled beef cooked in a sweet tomato sauce), coloradito enchiladas and a side of a very simple, delicious guacamole.
And of course there was the pièce de résistance, the reason we were there in the first place: Florián’s Trilogía de Moles Oaxaqueños. This exquisite trio of moles – rojo, negro and the almond- and olive-based almendrado – is beautifully divided on the plate by a side of rice. Each mole came with a piece of chicken, and a stack of handmade tortillas accompanied the dish. We weren’t surprised to learn that this is Quince Letras’s most popular dish.
For dessert, Florián offered a corn cake served with quince and topped with guava and strawberry sauces. She promised we would like it and she was right.
But we couldn’t get our minds off the moles. We had only tried three of Oaxaca’s seven moles but we were again reminded of just how glorious this state’s cooking can be.