Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mole poblano 2: ingredientes

[First published on 22 January 2012]

So if the legend of the invention of mole is true, what did Sor Andrea choose from the larder of five continents?

There is no reliable surviving record of exactly which ingredients she used and in what quantities. I have recipes for mole in for several cookbooks and find no agreement of a definitive ingredients list.
There are some things which are guaranteed to be in mole, many others which are very likely to be, and a few things which can be in mole, but aren't always.

As I wrote Chapter 1, the ingredients of mole reflect the extent of Spanish power and influence in the 16th century, especially the unique riches of the newly-discovered Americas. I will list the ingredients of the mole I made, arranged by place of origin.

The Americas

1 tomato

This red fruit, which is usually eaten as a vegetable, is indispensable to European, especially Mediterranean, cuisine. But tomatoes come from the Americas. They are native to South America and were imported into central and North America by the Aztecs. The Spanish discovered it there and spread it throughout the world. Even Indian cuisine has embraced it in dishes like rogan josh.

1 corn tortilla (stale)

With the possible exception of chiles, this has got to be the most typical Mexican food. Aztecs and other native peoples of pre-Colombian central and South America had been cultivating corn for literally millennia.

Corn was a dietary staple of many Northern Native American tribes as well, but it was the central and South Americans who discovered that by washing corn in slaked lime they could break down the outer husk and make it easier to digest.

This transformed corn into a highly nutritious super-food (rather than something that would pass through your digestive system relatively unchanged, and destroy your teeth in the process).

Corn tortillas became the fuel of the Aztec Empire and citizens could count on a daily ration of them. In mole, one stale tortilla is used to thicken the sauce

Pumpkin seeds

This is an optional ingredient, and one more typical of pipián, the green mole. But rest assured it is 100% native to the Americas.

In fact, archaeological evidence suggests the first cultivators of pumpkins were really after the seeds. If you've ever eaten toasted pumpkinseeds, you'll see why.

Mole is a seed-thickened sauce, and the main seed is actually sesame, but I used about 60 grammes of pumpkin seeds because I love them, and to maximize the prehispanic ingredients.

epazote - This is considered a weed in the US but is a much-valued and delicious herb in Mexican cooking.

Not only is it indigenous to North America, it doesn't seem to grow anywhere else at all, so I can only get it in dried form here in the UK.

Mexican oregano - This herb is similar to common oregano, but not actually related to it. Its scientific name is Lippia graveolens; "graveolens" means "heavy scent", because it smells like a much more potent version of European oregano.

These two herbs were a revelation to me and have totally changed how I perceive the flavour of Mexican food. Technically they are used in the turkey stock which is used to make the mole, rather than the mole proper.


But even more than the herbs, this dried berry has changed my view of Mexican food.

The name allspice was coined by the English in the seventeenth-century because thought it tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. And so it does, which is lucky, as those other spices come from Asia.

This little berry, however, was born and bred in central America. It's presence in the mole is welcome, but it must be pure showing off, as cinnamon and clove are also used, so presumably the allspice is redundant.


Chef and cultural anthropologist Rick Bayless poses the question of whether "mole" refers only to the sauce or also to what's in it.

Non-Mexicans probably assume the former (which would be in line with European cuisine and its derivatives), but Bayless writes that Mexicans do not perceive the sauce and the meat as being separable.

Whenever I have seen mole on restaurant menus, chicken has always been the meat, but the traditional choice is definitely turkey.

Chicken was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish (and Mexico immediately embraced it), but Mexico had long been domesticating turkeys for consumption, as well as hunting wild ones.


More than chiles, more than turkey, more than tomatoes (and more than even vanilla, which also comes from Mexico), chocolate is probably Mexico's greatest culinary gift.

Before Columbus landed, this was nature's best kept secret, and afterwards became the world's most highly praised culinary discovery. Everyone loves chocolate.

But most people don't put it with meat. Chocolate is the blessing and curse of the mole, because nearly all non-Mexicans who have heard of mole say "Chocolate chicken? Gross!". But there are three things to consider:

1) If the mole is to be a celebration of the riches of the new Spanish Empire, it must include the most valualbe thing in it (besides gold, which is edible, but not very tasty).

2) There are only about 50 (and certainly not more than 90) grammes of chocolate per 2 liter batch of mole. That' really not a helluva lot. It doesn't taste like a Mars bar. Trust me.

3) There are actually several recipes for mole poblano that do not include chocolate at all (which I learned from Diana Kennedy's books).
Nothing can ruin a mole faster than using too much chocolate. I would recommend using some, however, do give it that dark, bitter richness. 
If you can't get real Mexican chocolate, use high-coco solid (70% or higher) baking chocolate, with some ground cinnamon and maybe a (very little) bit of ground almonds, and NO SUGAR. 
Once the mole is simmering, you can sweeten it to taste (I prefer it very un-sweet); but you want to remain in control of the sweetening, and chocolate with sugar added could give you a bit of "stealth sweetness".
That raps it up for the New World. But mole wasn't meant to be just a statement of New World supremacy. It also celebrates ingredients that Mexico wouldn't have without Spain. So with that, we move to our next continent...

1 Onion

Just as the ubiquity of the tomato belies its culinary importance, so the humble onion can often be overlooked. Yet it is essential to most European cuisines. It's even the answer to an Anglo-Saxon riddle.

But it's native to the Old World. It was brought to the Americas by none other than Christopher Columbus, and Mexico took it to heart. With the exception of the Yucatecan cebollas en escabeche, it is usally white onions that are used in Mexican cooking.

3 cloves of garlic

Another staple of European cooking that was introduced to the Americas by colonists.

Garlic, however, has not been so thoroughly integrated into Mexican cuisine. Diane Kennedy, the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, writes that garlic is not widely used in Mexico. Therefore there are only three measly cloves of garlic per 2 liter batch of sauce.

This begs the question of whether you can even taste the garlic in the finished mole (it is certainly not the strongest flavour, I can tell you). I can only think that Sor Andrea used it because she couldn't conceive of cooking anything for a Spaniard without starting with onion and garlic.


When Americans think of Mexican food, they think of burritos. (When Brits think of Mexican food, they think of fajitas, which aren't Mexican.)

This is because most of the Mexican food that made it into the US comes from northern Mexico, where the European imports of wheat and beef thrive.

In the rest of Mexico, the corn tortilla is king, and chicken, pork (and even goat) are the major meats.

But there is one wheat product that can be found throughout Mexico: a European-style leavened wheat bread called bolillo. I have not tried it, but it is supposed to be a lot like what Americans call French bread.

One stale slice of this is used to thicken the mole, along with one stale corn tortilla. I imagine this was used precisely to balance the traditional Mexican ingredient with a traditional European one, and prevent the sauce having some kind of independence or home rule agenda.


There are two things the Spanish cannot live without - wine and olive oil.

So imagine their dismay when they discovered that neither grapes nor olives grow easily in Mexico.

Olives are not represented in mole at all, probably because there was no way of preserving them long enough to transport them from Europe to the New World in the sixteenth-century. But how could Sor Andrea contemplate her magic sauce in praise of the Spanish Empire without including at least one of Spain's culinary dynamic duo?

Of course, fresh grapes were not to be had, but they could get dried grapes or raisins. About 80 grammes of these are used in mole, almost twice the amount of chocolate, and much of the sauce's sweetness is undoubtedly due to the grapes.

Amazingly, you fry the grapes in hot fat for a few seconds until they puff up and turn golden (they really do that; I've seen it with my own eyes).

Stacked up against the exotic riches of the New World, Europe's contribution to mole may seem a bit bland. And I guess that's the point. All the world's most famous spices and herbs come from Asia or the Americas. Which is not to say that European cuisine, on its own, would just be meat and potatoes. Because potatoes come from South America.


Four or five centuries ago, if you had a couple of nutmegs, or some cloves, you could buy anything you wanted. If you had a ship full of these spices, you would be richer than most European governments of the time. The Dutch East India company, for instance, could afford to employ a private army larger than the army of any one nation in the world, at its time.

Today, any of these spices, with the possible exception of saffron, can be had for chump change at any chain supermarket in the developed world.

Some which were once the most valuable are now the cheapest and least appreciated. Black pepper is given away free on most restaurant and cafe tables, and sits gathering dust in practically every cupboard in the Western world.

"Vanilla", once one of the world's rarest, most exotic, and thus highly-valued spices, has become a synonym for "bland".

We take these things for granted so habitually that it's hard to imagine how they were once so valuable. Wars were fought over them. People risked their lives and happily took the lives of others for them. And they created virtually from scratch the wealth of huge new empires.

One of these empires belonged to Spain, and when creating the famous mole, Sor Andrea made sure she put a good helping of the newly acquired wealth of Asia into the mix.

Cloves and cinnamon

As I said above, these are two of the three tastes found in allspice, so presumably Sor Andrea could have just doubled the amount of these two and added a bit of nutmeg.

Perhaps she was trying to show off native Mexican spices in including allspice.

Or maybe there was a financial consideration. Cloves and cinnamon were two of the most expensive things on the planet at the time.

As it is, there's not a lot of these spices in the mole. However, unlike the garlic, onion, and tomato, you really can taste their presence. Partly this is due to the inherent power of these spices. That power is intensified by toasting the spices before you grind them. This makes your kitchen smell wonderful as well.


When I was a kid, liquorice was my most hated of all sweets.

Over the last ten years, though, I have developed a great appreciation for the taste of aniseed, when used in the right amounts.

There are few people, I think, who would like to be (as Greg Wallace has it) "smacked around the face with a big bag of liquorice allsorts", and when aniseed goes wrong, it's invariably because it is overpowering (like in all those disgusting spirits they sell in duty-free shops).

I was very keen to have aniseed present in my mole, because it provides the much-needed top note. Chocolate and the "darker", richer spices form the base notes, even the chiles are the mid-range; aniseed is that high pitch that completes the harmony of the dish.

You can use anything that tastes strongly of aniseed. I chose star anise because I had some left over from when I made the carrot and star anise soup.

And finally there are a series of ingredients which are hard to assign to a definite place. Such as:


There are about 80 grammes of crushed almonds in mole.

Almonds certainly aren't native to America, but they don't come from Europe either.

They are originally from the Middle East. But they have been known in Europe since the Middle Ages, so they aren't part of the newly-acquired spice cabinet of colonial exploits in Asia.

Almonds are, after all, the main ingredient of marchpane, which was a sweet popular among the artistocracy of Tudor England.

Sesame seeds

This is the main seed used to thicken mole. Whole sesame seeds are even sprinkled on top of the finished dish, a visual indicator of the importance of the ingredient.

Sesame seeds come from Africa. But the thing is, although Spain did have territories in Africa (Morocco for one, and they still have the Canary Islands), that's not the reason they had access to sesame seeds.

The word "sesame" comes to English by way of Ancient Greek, which means it had made its way into Europe by in the ancient world.

1/8 tsp of coriander seed

So much of what I love about Mexican food is down to indigenous ingredients (chiles, corn, pumpkin, etc).

But if there is one herb which is absolutely intrinsic to Mexican food, it is what Mexicans and Americans call cilantro, but everyone else calls coriander. And coriander does not come from Mexico.

Of course, listing it under Europe would be kind of a stretch. I mean, it's not a big part of European cuisine, after all, unless you count the fusion food that was popular in the early noughties.

On the other hand, it's indigenous to southern Europe and the Middle East, so presumably it must have been exported to India and other parts of Asia, where it is most familiar.

In any case, it is the seed, rather than the leaf, of coriander which is used.

Coriander seeds can give a slightly citrusy top note to a dish, but it's doubtful whether you can really detect an 1/8 teaspoon of ground coriander seed in a 2 liter batch of mole. So once again I'm going to hypothesize that Sor Andrea, if she existed at all, used it because she felt obliged to use this gift of Imperial Spain that was probably already asserting its importance in the local cuisine.

She probably used seeds because the leafy herb part would have completely clashed with the other flavours, and she probably used so little of it because she didn't want it jostling with aniseed for the role of top note.

Recalling that there are three different types of chile used in mole, plus chle seeds, we're up to 22 ingredients. You also need some fat to fry things in and some water to make the stock.

Below is a photo of some of the seeds and spices which are to be toasted and ground. The stuff in the dish is ancho chile seeds.