Part II of the series that ran last year on Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead. This post written by Chris Carter. Who excels in this category of Mexican cooking, his cajeta is fantastico also!
Written by Chris Carter
As we stepped through the wide iron gates of the cemetery at Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca City well into the evening on October 31st a brass band struck up a jaunty tune. The enclosed space, crowded with people and illuminated in candles, was beyond anything I had seen in magazines about Day of the Dead celebrations– in the United States you rarely see hundreds of people in a cemetery at night, let alone with a brass brand. I was here for two reasons—to witness this cultural ritual first hand and to master the preparation for the king of all moles, Mole Negro Oaxaqueno (black mole). This task would be facilitated through Susanna Trilling and her school, Seasons of My Heart.
Oaxaca, in food circles, is known as the land of Seven Moles. This Mexican sauce made of ground nuts, seeds, chocolate and spices takes its name from molli, from the language of the pre-Colombian Nahuatl Indians in Mexico, and loosely translates as mixture. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles, often called the Seven Sisters.
Mole (pronounced MO-lay) preparation and especially mole negro, is complex and a difficult sauce to make. It contrasts greatly with both our culinary practices and general way of life in America. Rachael Ray need not apply as this is no 30-minute meal. It can actually take days to make and generally contains 20 to 30 ingredients. It is also not a simmer all day and forget about it dish either, as it can require a couple hours of constant, attentive stirring. It can actually be heartbreaking to dump a batch of inedible mole down the drain after three days of hard work. In my case it took several of these down-the-drain experiences and a trip South to perfect the dish before I could produce a passable traditional black mole.
The difficulty of the dish is due in part to the fact that the sauce does not lend itself to the rote following of directions. The end goal for a great mole is a single deep rich flavor. How do you know if you are tasting a quality mole? You should not be able to individually identify any of the 20-30 single ingredients, which requires the deft hand of the mole maker to balance all the aspects of the sauce– the sweetness from the fruit and nuts, with the heat from the chilies, and in many cases the richness of the chocolate added to the mole. Black mole requires a step where you deeply blacken the chilies followed by igniting and burning the seeds of the chilies to give the mole the classic delicate burnt undertones that add distinctiveness and complexity. After all the ingredients are prepared they are pureed together. In Oaxaca this ability and skill is acknowledged with a “buen sazon” which according to our instructor Susanna Trilling means “good taste buds or palate, combined with a good hand for seasoning.”
“Black mole always has to be the star” according to Rick Bayless in his cookbook, Mexican Kitchen. This can be generally interpreted as serving rice and fresh tortillas on the side of the dish to sop up the sauce. In America where meat is plentiful and usually the focus of a special meal, in Mexican cooking the sauce is typically the centerpiece with the meat—turkey or chicken–as a luxury. Zarela Martinez states in her book The Food and Life of Oaxaca “an understated foil to the fascinating textures and nuances of the sauces”.
If you take the time to make the black mole recipe below from Susanna Trilling you will certainly have an extravagant, richly complex, and deeply flavored dish for a special occasion. Relative to all the contrasts between Oaxaca and America listed above, it is actually harder to make Mole here than in Oaxaca where all the ingredients can be ground for you at local molino or mill. Here are a few practical tips to make preparing and serving black mole easier and more enjoyable: continue on for mole recipe
Photo credit: J. Brophy