Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mole, mole, mole

Who wouldn't love to melt chocolate, even for a sauce over chicken? Mole poblano begins innocently, as you put in chilies, tomatoes, onions, nuts, raisins, and so on... then bam, into the mix comes chocolate and it becomes peculiar yet delightfully sinful. Chocolate lends to the thick, sweet and rich sauce known as the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine.

Turkey with Mole Poblano (recipe)

Of Moles and Menu

Mexican cuisine is too often misrepresented by Tex-Mex cuisine. People eat tacos, burritos, enchiladas and think that they have conquered most of the Mexico menu. In truth, authentic Mexican has plenty of varieties, divided at least into six main culinary regions: The North, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Yucatan. Each region has a distinct proportion of influence from European (Spanish, French and Italian) and pre-Columbian (Incan, Mayan) civilizations.

Meanwhile Tex-Mex is only a fraction of Mexican cuisine with adaptations - for instance, its extensive the use of cheese, especially cheddar, and the abundance on meat. Mexican cuisine does not use cheese. In pueblos, diets are concentrated on beans, rice or corn while fat intake are subtituted by cheaper means, such as avocados. See differences between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex food.

Mole (simply, sauce) is arguably the crown of Mexican cuisine - although guacamole (avocado sauce) is the only one well-known outside of Mexico. The most famous amongst the hundreds of moles, because of its striking use of chocolate, is the Mole Poblano (Puebla being its origin). Traditional moles are dauntingly complex to make, requiring an incredible number of ingredients - 30 ingredients are not unusual, and legendary moles are known to use 100 ingredients. While it is not technically difficult, it is painstaking to individually roast chiles, nuts and seeds. The almonds, chili, seeds etc. then are melted together into what I would call a yummy supernut.

After a day of roasting anise seed, coriander seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, the final (and most enjoyable) stage is the melting of the chocolates.

Among the many ingredients are the chiles. Different moles require different combinations of chiles, each presenting its own flavors (smokiness, hotness, fruitiness, etc). I'm unfamiliar with all these varieties, and what also confused me was because dried chiles have new names. I've wondered what chipotle is, but its just a dried version of jalapenos. Chilaca in its dry form is pasilla, while chile poblano can be dried into ancho (if ripened) or mulato (if unripened). Here is a good list of chiles, chilis, chillis in Mexican Cuisine.

Food for the gods

Who invented this idea? Was it the Aztecs? Any conversation about Mole Poblano will eventually lead to the history of chocolate. Actually it wasn't the Aztecs, although they consumed the prototypical chocolate - a bitter, spicy drink the conquistadors deemed undrinkable, accidentally invented 3100 years ago as a celebratory beer-like beverage. This "food for the gods" was treated with high reverence - chocolate drunk by Montezuma was valued even more than its disposable golden goblets. It was not used for flavoring, the same way communion wine is not used for cooking.

Montezuma drank 50 cups of chocolatl a day. From Larry Gonick cartoons.

Also, cooking with chocolate would have been very expensive - cocoa beans are also highly valued as money. In 1513 the prices were: 4 cocoa beans for a rabbit, 10 cocoa beans for a prostitute and 100 cocoa beans for a slave (note: 30 years later, inflation brought the price of a rabbit to 100 cocoa beans). Here is a nice compilation of the history of chocolate.

Instead, the mole poblano was made by improvisation of less glamorous beginnings. In one version, 16th century nuns in Puebla, having nothing to prepare dinner for the Archbishop, simply threw everything into a pot, including chocolate. They simmered it over hours and basically, crossed their fingers. See History of Mole Poblano. Thankfully the Archbishop was tolerant of new, strange flavors or otherwise Mole Poblano would not have grown into Mexico's national dish.

1. Making pollo en mole poblano with Chef Miguel Ravago of Fonda San Miguel [1]
2. Mole Poblano: Mexico's National Food Dish [2]
3. Food Timeline FAQs: Mexican & Tex-Mex foods [3]
4. From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate [4]
5. Mole Poblano Sauce [5]
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