Mole gets short shrift. Too often, this complex condiment is labeled as merely a savory chocolate sauce, as if throwing together a few squares of Baker’s and some chiles is enough to qualify its inclusion in innumerable Valentine’s Day menus. To combat a multitude of mole misconceptions, we tapped JBF Award winner Hugo Ortega to explain what makes this dish so special. Ortega, the chef and owner behind four of Houston’s top restaurants, has spent his career championing the diversity and deliciousness of Mexican cuisine, and to him, mole is a vital part of that mission. Read on for Ortega’s take on why mole is so much more than just a sweet tooth’s savory concession.
As told to Maggie Borden:
Mole is a national treasure of Mexico, and Mexico is the only country that truly makes it. The name derives from the indigenous Zapotec word molli, which means “sauce.” Chocolate originally comes from Mesoamerica, and was then adopted by Europeans, so it’s no surprise that it’s an ingredient in most moles, which may be why when most people think of mole, they envision a dark, earthy sauce. Yes, there are many moles that fit that description, but there’s actually a wide spectrum of moles in a rainbow of colors: mole verde is green and draws its color from tomatillos, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, hoja santa, and cilantro; mole amarillo gets its yellow coloring from the Costeño pepper; mole de Coloradito is red; mole de chicatana, which is made with flying ants who feed on sesame plants and give the sauce a special flavor, is dark red; mole almendrado (almond mole) is a light creamy color; mole de higo, made with figs, is a slightly lighter brown than its cousin mole negro, and that’s just naming a few varieties!
While mole is something that today people can enjoy on a daily basis, traditionally it was a reserved as a celebratory dish for special occasions, due to the lengthy preparation and large number of ingredients required to make it properly. In small villages, moles were made for weddings and people from the village would each contribute different items needed for the recipe. Then, the “mole makers”—usually the elder women of the village—would prepare it with love for their family and friends. All this variation points to how complex mole is. It’s not just a simple sauce—it has more ingredients than most people think. For example, our mole poblano has 25 ingredients. This can make balancing the flavors very tricky, and is why the “mole makers” were traditionally revered.
Each mole tells a story about the village, town, or state that it comes from, which makes them incredibly important dishes. For example, mole negro Oaxaqueño has ties to the Aztecs; mole Poblano was influenced by the Spanish nuns who came to Mexico to teach Christianity; and mole verde, which is lighter and brighter, is a coastal favorite. Mole is Mexico!
Get to know mole better with Ortega’s recipe for duck with mole poblano.