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Jan 5, 2007 03:55 PM

Mexican Moles in America Media

***edited for typo in subject line*** American

Over on the SF board there's a discussion on moles in the Bay Area. It got me thinking about the perception and understanding of moles in America.

Moles in Mexico are complex and important "sauces" (for lack of an immediate better word) in the food culture there.

What my rant here is about is thtat I've noticed that TV chefs while maybe curious about them have taken to preparing them in a very rough manner. The key component of a mole and its complexity is the methodolgy--the searing, the cooking time, quality of ingredients, # of ingredients etc. I've also noticed that what's called a mole is being loosely defined and at times limited to mole negro ("the chocolate one" as people say).

As I was saying to someone recently it upsets me that food cognescenti--radio, TV in particular--have such a limited knowledge of Mexican and Latin American food. They are so focused on the Western European. So when they given out info on Mex & LatAm food it's often wrong. However (this is where I lose sleep!) they have such large audiences that that info becomes the de facto (most Americans aren't as particular as us hounds).

Has anyone else noticed this about moles and the food media?

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  1. Well, that is my bitch about the media and food in general, not just mole ... they stick to the tried and true ... but to focus on mole ...

    Loved this line from Wikipedia "The word is also widely known in the combined form guacamole (avocado mole)."

    I think being a food writer/celebrity is a balance. People in general are not open to the new.

    On the other hand, unless writers and tv shows do something to educate readers/viewers people don't know different foods, in this case moles, exist.

    To tell you the truth, despite having worked in Mexico a year and hitting a lot of Mexican restaurants in the states, until last month I was unaware that mole didn't just mean the chocolate mole poblano ... or associated it with guaca ... heh.

    Then I went to a restaurant that had four different types of mole (I guess I should post about it in that thread) and it was a revelation.

    Here's a few good links I found about mole after eating there.

    I don't watch cooking shows that often, but how does Rick Bayless do in terms of mole?

    6 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Oh if you define mole broadly as a complex, wonderful Mexican sauce (and don't worry about what is or is not technically a mole)... well, there are hundreds of them! And if you eat any one of them, you will realize that, when the writer of "Like Water for Chocolate" decided to use Mexican food as a metaphor for the magic of the universe, he made a really good choice. I first discovered some in a Mexican restaurant in NYC. And that place just has food from Puebla! How I long to try the seven fabled moles of Oaxaca. Or regions unknown to me, discussed in that "3 great cuisines" thread. You should try places in Watsonville, CA.

      1. re: Brian S

        Over the years... the more I have learned about regional Mexican cuisine & pre-hispanic cuisine the more I accept the name 'Mole' to mean any thick, cooked Mexican sauce that have one single unifying thread... chiles.

        Mole comes from Mulli which just meant thick sauce... and the Aztecs made seasonal variations on the same basic sauce depending on whether they had pumpkinseeds, peanuts, pinenuts or just plain masa to use as a thickener. To me there is no reason to seperate the Moles de Olla & "Chiles" from the rest of the Moles. Even in Oaxaca you will note that that the Mole Verde rarely has any nuts or seeds in it, and no chocolate for sure... so the only thing that links it with the other 6 Moles... is that its thick, complex & based on Chiles.

        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          "I accept the name 'Mole' to mean any thick, cooked Mexican sauce that have one single unifying thread... chiles."

          Just to "stir the pot" a little, my mother-in-law and everyone from her rural region of Michoacán call any kind of sauce, thick or thin, in which a protein or shellfish is called a "mole" (or "molillo," as they use the diminuative very frequently). Even something as basic and day-to-day as a blend of guajillos, garlic, salt, cumin, and water is a mole to her. She grew up with no concept of mole poblano or Oaxacan moles, so the word is used a little differently in her kitchen.

          1. re: maestra

            Yup those are the Mole de Olla that I was referring to. (Its the common name in other states). They are also known as Mole Ranchero or Mole Sencillo.

            1. re: maestra

              The closest Bayless comes to a definition (in the 14 page section on moles in Authentic Mexican) is:
              "They're always cooked sauces, rather than the condiments we spoon onto tacos [salsas?]; they're red-chile sauces, or ones thick with nuts and seeds, or ones made special with herbs and spices."

              His Poblano has a page of ingredients, his simple red one, only half a page (manchamantales - table cloth stainer). The sauce itself is little more than anchos, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, and bread.


        2. re: rworange

          I pay homage to Bayless. While Diana Kennedy is certainly esteemed Chef Bayless has made enourmous in roads toward making Mexican food approachable. And talk about research, he's aces in that area too. He understands what role a particular ingredient plays in a preparation but also wants people to make the dish so he eases up--but not at the expense of the integrity of the dish. Aaron Sanchez and Zarzela Martinz are others in the same category.

        3. Does that authentic complexity include taking your custom mix of nuts and spices to the neighborhood mole grinder?

          However, Mexicans must buy the Dona Maria mole mixes for more than the pretty drinking glass.


          10 Replies
          1. re: paulj

            And Americans buy Campell's canned soup. That doesn't mean the media doesn't report about outstanding American soups and stews. Just because convenience food is available whether it is mole or soup, doesn't mean that good mole is not getting ignored by the media.

            1. re: paulj

              They do indeed. Those Dona Maria mole bases in the drinking glasses were originally a marketing gimmick. What happened is that thrifty shoppers saw it as a value--helping sales. The other side of it was that there was this huge realization that while everyone likes moles no one had the time to make them as they were working.

              1. re: ciaogina

                Did companies like Dona Maria pioneer the making of a mole paste, or just the packaging? For example, in an area like Oaxaca, does everyone make their own mole from scratch, or do many buy some preground mix or paste from a local shop? Another possibility is that few people make the complex versions at home, buying the dish from specialty restaurants or street vendors.


                1. re: paulj

                  I'll guess Dona Maria is a packaging thing. Do they even sell that brand in Mexico??
                  In Oaxaca, the market has mountains of mole paste (and some in powder form, but not mole negro) but of course some people make their own. Remember the more elaborate preparations are not for everyday in a typical home.

                  1. re: pitu

                    I don't thinks so... the Moles I have seen at the supermarkets were all in single strength, "chicken broth" cartons, under brands like Knorr, La Sierra, Herdez etc., all manufactured in Mexico & decent for supermarket products... Dona Maria & Rogelio Bueno are manufactured in the U.S. (I believe)

                    1. re: pitu

                      I'm pretty sure that Dona Maria is a Mexican brand. Though food lovers like to believe that everyone outside of the U.S. makes everything from scratch, I tend to think that's not true.

                      Oddly translated Dona Maria history:

                      Project Me

                      1. re: Krista G

                        I don't know who Dona Maria sells to in Mexico... because even the mega supermarkets (where the new non-Chowish middle classes shop) seem to carry other better brands... and the lower classes buy them from local artisan shops (when they don't make them)

                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                          Supermarkets in Mexico often sell mole paste by the pound, so there's no way to know where they came from. But the quality can be quite high.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Yeah... my relatives in Aguascalientes will buy bulk mole at the local Wal-Mart or Costco... but I will be dammed if its Dona Maria... the acrid, artificial taste of their Jar products haunts me in my worst nightmares :)

                  2. re: ciaogina

                    When those glasses break, they shatter into a zillion little pieces. Must be cheap glass. Good point about people (women) working.

                2. What? There are folks who don't know about mole? There are people who don't spend hours combining 40 ingredients in various ways to make dozens of styles of mole? Oh, the horror of it all. Those poor disadvantaged people.

                  But seriously, in my area, NYC, people who are interested in Latin food know about mole, those who aren't, don't.

                  I too have found that quite a few chefs, food celebrities, and critics know squat about most food other than their areas of specialization, if they even have one.

                  My pet peeve is that many so called food writers are clueless, don't do research, and shouldn't even be allowed to write about food. It really annoys me because I do tons of research for even the shortest piece because I hate not having correct info.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: JMF

                    Isn't the legendary story about the Mole Poblano that a panicky convent cook threw everything but the kitchen sink in to her stew to impress a visiting bishop?


                    1. re: paulj

                      That is certainly a folk myth. If you anylyze the Mole Poblano recipe you recognize the various components common in Poblano cuisine. Its kind of like one of those modernist compositions that synthesized 5 folk songs into 1 fantasy.

                  2. it is true that virtually everyone in the NY area is ignorant of the fact that "mole" means more than just "mole poblano"

                    this is probably because there are no Oaxacan, etc. restaurants in NY.

                    midwestern foodies are certainly there are Oaxacan restaurants in Chicago, Milwaukee and other places as well.

                    also throw in the Bayless factor

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Nathan07

                      There are certainly places in Manhattan that offer alternatives to Mole Poblano (Rosa Mexicano, Zarela's, Pompano & others). But they aren't cheap & they seem to have a small cult following.

                      But make no mistake about it... those who are within the foodie circles know Zarela Martinez & Aaron Sanchez... who are the Manhattan equivalent of Rick Bayless. In fact, Aaron even battled Morimoto on Iron Chef... a show that seems to be well watched among Chowhounds.

                    2. eh, not really.

                      you're right that a couple higher end Mexican restaurants in NY, have thrown a couple other moles onto the menu (often not labeling them as "mole" cause that confuses NY diners)...pipian shows up occasionally...but no one is doing the 7 moles of Oaxaca, etc.

                      and I'm not sure what is supposed to be convincing or interesting about an allusion to Iron Chef.

                      19 Replies
                      1. re: Nathan07

                        Based on my conversations with many people, virtually everyone in the NY area, and in the midwest, and in California has never heard of mole, except as a furry animal that ruins their gardens. The immigrants in the NY area (except for Poughkeepsie) are from Puebla, but the Mexican restaurant I mentioned above, and many others, have many fabulous sauces that are unlike anything I've tasted in my life, and use spices I've never heard of except in Mexican cookbooks. The 7 moles of Oaxaca are the NY chowhound's holy grail, totally unavailable. But I think you would be unable to find a restaurant in San Francisco (where most Oaxacan restaurants are not owned by Oaxacans) or even in Oaxaca itself which offers good versions of all seven moles. Many foodies who know about mole probably believe that you can walk into any cafe or market stall in Oaxaca and find wonderful versions of any of the seven moles, but as far as I can tell from my reading and Internet research, that just ain't so. (Okay, maybe some of these restaurants can do it, but they are, I would guess, mainly patronized by tourists, largely because they are far too expensive for most Oaxacans. )

                        1. re: Brian S

                          Just for those who might be unfamiliar ...

                          it is pronounced mo-lay ... rhymes with ole.

                          It does not rhyme with soul like the furry little animal.

                          Would hate for someone to get adventerous and ask a Mexican restaurant if they had moles ... since to my knowledge the little animals are not served ... with or without sauce ... no mole en mole.

                          1. re: rworange

                            A closer phonetic pronunciation would be MOH-leh. There really is no long "A" sound in Spanish. Same with ole'--except the accent falls differently--oh-LEH!

                          2. re: Brian S

                            Outside the tourist trade, you *could* get the different moles in the market in OAX, but you'd have to get them on different days, and/or at festivals.
                            Everything is not meant to be available all the time!

                            Also I found Oaxaca to be a much bigger home cooking culture (with very advanced and fabulous street food for snacking) than restaurant culture

                            1. re: pitu

                              " I found Oaxaca to be a much bigger home cooking culture"
                              That's exactly what I thought, and that's why I specified "restaurants in Oaxaca"

                          3. re: Nathan07

                            Almost as funny as the Manhattanites who only know about Mole Poblano... are those who have just discovered Oaxacan Moles who naively come to think they are the end all & be all of Mole world.

                            Lets get this straight.... yes Oaxacan has 7 Moles... they are clearly distinct from each other. Some of the Oaxacan Moles are referred to by different sauce names in other states. For example, take the Amarillo in Oaxaca... there is a similar sauce in the Yucatan & other states called Almendrado. And sauces similar to Oaxacan Mole Verde are often referred to as Mole de Olla in other states.

                            To dismiss Pueblas Moles because they are called differently is sadly mistaken. Puebla has its own respectable team of Moles including:

                            Mole Poblano (brownish red, spicy with chocolate)
                            Pipian Rojo (red, earthy spicy, no chocolate)
                            Pipian Verde (green, very herbal & rich)
                            Manchamanteles (slightly sweet & spicy with big pieces of fruit)
                            Guazmole (green, fresh & slightly fruit made with Guaje fruits)

                            Similarly around Mexico... every state has its versions of Moles... some of the most intriguing ones to me, are the ones based on Coconut milk, or the White Mole made from Cacao Butter which I recently learned about.

                            I don't know how many clearly distinct Mole variaties there are... but there are a lot more than Oaxacas 7 Moles. And I am not talking little French... let me change 1 ingredient & give it a new name variations. So lets put it in perspective.

                            Now back to the 7 Moles... even in L.A. you will find just a couple of Oaxacan places that have all 7 Oaxacan styles of Mole on any given day (if at all).

                            I know that some of the higher restaurants in Manhattan tend to rotate through their Mole offerings. Are they deep in Moles... no not yet, all the restaurants there are just trying to do introductions to Mexican cuisine and there is too much to cover to dive into Moles.

                            But note that Zarela Martinez is from Oaxaca, and she has written a credible book on Oaxacan regional cuisine... so her place might offer more Moles than you might think.

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              right on EatNopal! I love OAX, but my favorite mole is mole poblano
                              (as purchased in paste form from a particular lady in D.F. at the luxe mercado, and put together at home)

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                I am interested in these white and cocunt basted moles...please expand eat nopal...

                                1. re: kare_raisu

                                  The following website is a gold mine. Unfortunately its in Spanish. White Mole:

                                  > Golden Raisins
                                  > Almonds, Peanuts, Pumpkin Seeds, Sesame Seeds
                                  > White Chocolate (Cacao Butter)
                                  > Yellow Chiles
                                  > Fried Plantains
                                  > Garlic
                                  > Onion
                                  > Chicken Broth


                                  Coconut Moles.... in Veracruz... they have these thinner moles, with unmistakable Coconut Flavor.... I've had a hard time finding information on them. Next time I am in Mexico... I am going to hunt down some regional cook books from Veracruz, Chiapas & Nayarit.

                                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    Conaculta has a series of cookbooks (50+ IIRC) that is a gold mine of information on regional cuisine and foodways. Often the books are in both Spanish and the indigenous tongue. I have at least one (there may be multiple volumes) of the Veracruz cookbook as well as the one for Chiapas. Quite often the first chapter or so is a discussion of the local area and foodways. I will check my volumes tonight and see if I can find a mention of coconut based moles. I'm wondering, Eat Nopal, if you aren't thinking of Xico mole. I've not yet eaten it, but know several people that have and they all adore it.

                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                      DD... the Conaculta series is exactly what I was thinking of. I know you can get them at cultural sites (Arqueological Sites, Museums etc.,) fairly easily but god are they expensive... relying on tourists to fork over big bucks! So I want to hunt them down in the neighborhood bookstores instead.

                                      Its not that I am cheap... but with $200 I am pretty sure I can get half the collection in the neighborhoods... while at the Boutique stores that will buy me 4 or 5 at best.

                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                        I bought a bunch of them in Guadalajara last August, most of them were $80 pesos or less.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          EN, you must be thinking of different Conaculta cookbooks--I have about ten of the series of 50+ and not one of them cost more than 50-60 pesos. That's more or less $5USD apiece.

                                          I buy mine brand new at the Hospico Cabañas here in GDL, or from the Conaculta bookstore at the annual Feria Internacional del Libro, held in GDL the last week of November.

                                          That white mole sounds spectacular, and what a great link! Thanks for posting it.

                                          1. re: cristina

                                            I kid you not at the Centro Cultural Tijuana bookstore, they were something like 350 pesos and they only had a few from the collection. Also, the Concaculta music CDs (similar 40 or so CD volume) were selling for 200 pesos... instead of the 100 pesos at Sanborns.

                                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                If he's buying in Tijuana I definitely believe the pricing. Designed to snag those tourist dollars for sure.

                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              Last week I bought 3 of the Conaculta regional cookbooks at a latin music store in Escondido (San Diego County) (next to El Tigre Market) for US$5.95. They had a limited selection. It appears that the series of 32 volumes was published between '85 and '88 by Banco Nacional de Credito Rural, and now re-published by Editorial Oceana and the Mexican cultural organization Conaculta. There might have been a more expensive earlier edition, since the ones I have mention that the present project aims to widen the distribution of the books by making them more affordable. In the back of each book is a list of the local festivals and their associated foods, and a glossary of local terms. I haven't tried any of the recipes, but they are great reading.

                                              The Jalisco book has recipes for Pipian, Mole de arrroz, Mole Verde, Mole Estilo Jalisco, Mole castellano, Manchamanteles, and Conejo en pipian. The San Luis Potosi book only shows Mole de olla, Mole verde, and Mole ranchero. The Guanajuato book doesn't list any dishes specifically as moles, but does include a Pollo almendrado. Maybe there are more that would be considered moles, but I don't recognize them.

                                              The pollo almendrado contains chicken, onions, almonds, saltines, tomatos, chiles gueros, raisins, vegetables, and stock. No other chiles or herbs.

                                            2. re: DiningDiva

                                              Here's a Xico mole recipe:

                                              The chilies include ancho, mulato, and pasilla
                                              Thickeners include tortillas, bread (bolillo), sesame, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, and pumpkin seeds (did they leave out anything?
                                              )Fruits include raisins, prunes, tomato, platano
                                              Spices are garlic, chocolate, anise, cinnamon, oregano, sugar to taste
                                              Preparation appears to be distinctive in that all items are fried in lard, rather than toasted on the comal.


                                            3. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              Any thoughts about using tahini instead of sesame seeds in a mole? My small food processor does a poor job of grinding whole sesame seeds.