The Many Colored Moles of Mexico
Late last October my husband and I spent six days in Mexico City. After reading countless articles on the city’s vibrant cultural scene, I booked the tickets on a whim so that we could be there for the annual Day of the Dead celebrations. It was our first trip out of the country after moving to the Chicago area one year ago, and we weren’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, our timing couldn’t have been better. High season for tourists typically lasts from January until May, so we were able to visit major attractions without long lines. The rain which characterizes the summer months had ended, and the weather was sunny and cool, lending the city a lovely freshness. We stayed in the same leafy neighborhood—Roma — where Alfonso Cuarón’s recent award-winning Netflix film of the same name was set.
One major reason to visit Mexico City, of course, is the food. From the sugary, orange-water scented pan de muerto that we munched during a morning stroll through the colorful cobblestone streets of Coyoacán to the crunch of chile-roasted chapulines piled high on a bed of creamy guacamole, I’m (hopefully) not the first to tell you that Mexico City has as much to offer the palette is it does the eyes.
One thing I hadn’t given much consideration before our trip was mole, which I’d only tried a few times in my life and assumed was primarily produced in Oaxaca or Puebla. In reality, 60% of Mexico’s entire mole production takes place within the District Federale’s city limits, in a tucked away colonia called Milpa Alta, home to the tiny village of San Pedro Actopan. There, just a handful of families are responsible for producing enormous quantities of mole, though the overall production employs something close to 90% of the entire village’s 9,000 residents.
Thanks to its remote location far outside Mexico City’s bustling city center, Milpa Alta experienced a delay in modernization which allowed rural and indigenous traditions to flourish well into the 20th century. For this reason, San Pedro Actopan became a center of the indigenismo movement popularized by artists like Frida Kahlo, which emphasized the value of Mexico’s pre-Columbian national heritage through the preservation of indigenous languages, practices, and crafts, including cuisine.
When the first electric grinding mills came to San Pedro Actopan in the late 1960s, families who had carried forward the tradition of making mole by hand began selling their product, which quickly became known as the city’s best, in Mexico City’s central markets. As a result, the little village became known as Mexico City’s mole epicenter, a reputation it retains today thanks to the mole festival held there each October, which we were lucky enough to stumble on.
After a long taxi ride, we arrived in San Pedro Actopan late in the afternoon. In the center of town, a market had been set up where vendors stood behind stalls with colorful baskets filled with colorful pastes and powders decorated with nuts and flowers. The moles from San Pedro de Actopan, we learned, typically include fruit like raisins or figs and the town is famous for its white mole, made with almonds.
Though many picture a thick, chocolate flavored sauce when thinking of mole, there are dozens of varieties, many of which contain no chocolate at all. The word is thought to come from the Nahuatl word “mulli” which translates to mix. According to legend, mole was invented in the 16th century by a nun in the city of Puebla, to honor a visiting archbishop. Realizing that they had nothing to serve him, the nuns improvised by combining small quantities of whatever was in the convent kitchen: chocolate, chili peppers, spices, day-old bread, and nuts. The archbishop loved it, and the rest was history.
Today we know that pre-Hispanic peoples throughout Latin America prepared dishes which called for the same ingredients found in today’s moles. The use of cacao in drinks by the Aztecs and Mayans is well-documented, as is the use of corn dough, ground seeds, and chiles. Other elements, like the use of nuts or bread as a thickening agent, were common in medieval Spanish cuisine. Like many of Mexico’s most beloved dishes, mole is a symbol of Mexico’s mixed European and indigenous heritage.
While in Mexico mole is usually reserved for special occasions due to a laborious and hours-to-days long process of combining ingredients, pastes and powders like those sold at the market in San Pedro Actopan have made it more widely accessible both in Mexico and elsewhere. We sampled several varities of mole during our stay, including a traditional mole Coloradito served with duck and Pujol’s spectacular 1,000-day-old Mole Madre, but one quick trip to Mexico City is hardly enough time to understand the full variety of moles that Mexico has to offer.
Some of Mexico’s most iconic moles include:
Manchamanteles Chile-Fruit Mole: This sweet, spicy mole’s name translates to “table stainer” thanks to its bright red color. Manchamanteles is often flavored with fruit like pineapple, chiles, and a variety of herbs like cinnamon.
Pipian Mole Verde: Pipian is the Spanish word for “pumpkin seed,” a key element of this green mole. Fresh and creamy, mole verde is often flavored with a blend of green chiles, onion, garlic, and spices.
Oaxacan Mole Negro: One of the seven traditional moles of Oaxaca, Mexico, Mole Negro is usually made with a rich blend of spicy dried chiles, ground almonds, warm and savory spices, and plenty of bittersweet dark chocolate.
Oaxacan Mole Amarillo: Mole Amarillo takes its name from aji amarillo, the hot yellow chile pepper that gives the sauce its unique color and flavor. A delicate mole, it often includes a blend of tomato, onion, garlic, herbs and chiles.
We highly recommend that you book a ticket to Mexico as soon as you can, but until then experience the authentic flavors of this beloved culinary tradition with Manitou Trading Company’s new line of quick-cooking Mole Sauce Starters.