What Is A Mexican Mole?

Posted on 01 Apr 2012 02:59

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The mole is Mexico's national dish, yet it is simply a sauce. Did you think it was the taco? Or maybe one of those salty monstrosities you get from Chipotle? Nope, it's a bit more refined and a bit more flavorful.

Although many believe the word mole comes from the Spanish word moler, meaning "to grind" it actually comes from a Nahuatl (Aztec) word, molli meaning, "sauce" or "mixture." Most people have probably never experienced an honest to goodness mole. Mexican restaurants in the U.S., which churn out generic cookie-cutter dishes that are one step removed from fast food, certainly rarely make real Mexican moles. The flavors are sweet, nutty, roasted, and slightly bitter.

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The mole comes from the southern region of Mexico where there is heavy Amerindian influence and chocolate is used in both sweet and savory dishes. However, the frequent translation of mole to mean "chocolate sauce" is incorrect, as only a small percentage of moles use chocolate. And although the mole has pre-Columbian roots, and the word comes from the Aztec language, it is highly doubtful that the Aztecs ever would have used chocolate in a savory recipe. Experimenting with chocolate came in the seventeenth century, after the Spanish conquest. See also When Was the First Use of Chocolate?

The mole typically contains a mixture of chiles, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. They sometimes include unsweetened chocolate, tomatoes, and raisins. Avocado leaves, epazote, and various spices might be used. Many, including the most famous Mole Poblano or Poblano de guajolote, from Puebla, said to be the first, contain chocolate. Being so well known, this may account for the mole being thought of as a chocolate sauce.

Rich, brown, and commonly served with turkey, there are several stories of how this mole was invented. Some say it originated with a Dominican nun, Sor Andrea de la Asunción, who was preparing a guiso of puréed roasted chile, cinnamon, pepper, cilantro, sesame seeds and turkey broth and decided to add some chocolate, which, according to her, sent the dish through the roof with an indescribable flavor. Another story has it that a guy named Fray Pascual discovered it when he accidentally dropped an entire tray of spices into his pot. Some different and more flowery versions are given here. None of them is likely and the mole probably developed over a long period dating back to pre-Hispanic times and then incorporating Spanish ingredients making it a true mestizo dish.


Red mole over chicken


Red mole over chicken

The mole is used either as a base to build a stew or as a sauce to be poured over meat or poultry but unlike most sauces, the point of the mole is the mole itself. Anything served with it is secondary! This is why I called it a national dish, even though a sauce is not usually considered a dish in its own right. The mole is an exception to that rule.

Moles are typically served on festive occasions, such as fandangos and birthdays. During the days of the dead in November, mole is the food offering made to the ancestors. Each region has their own variation, some of which are simple and some of which are highly complex with up to 100 ingredients. Families, of course, pass down their own recipes, so there are probably as many moles as there are Mexican cooks. The sauces are served with poultry, meat, vegetables, seafood..you name it.

Although a molcajete, a type of Mexican mortar and pestle, is usually used to grind all the ingredients together to form a paste, you can get away with using an electric blender as long as you're not being watched by a serious Mexican mole maker. The results are not exactly the same, as there is a difference between chopping the ingredients into fine bits with a whirring blade and carefully mashing and grinding them to a velvety pulp. However, a blender mole is pretty darn awesome and a whole lot easier.

turkey topped with pumpkin mole sauce

Turkey with a Pumpkin Mole

turkey topped with pumpkin mole sauce

Turkey with a Pumpkin Mole

A true mole has tons of ingredients and takes tons of cooking time. It's not a béchamel, by any means. All the various chiles, nuts, seeds, virtually everything, is slow roasted first to bring out the flavor. If you cannot get to Mexico to try one (hopefully not from a tourist restaurant) and, as is likely, you can't get one at a restaurant at home, do not try one of the concentrated paste mixes that are available. In my opinion, the results are not good. These usually, for instance, contain cocoa powder instead of chocolate, which too me, adds too much bitterness. You'll have no way of knowing what is in them as most of the spices will be listed as "natural flavors.'

A good mole is only slightly bitter, moles form mixes are likely to be very bitter. You will be left with a very bad idea as to what a mole is, and like a bitter taste in your mouth. People in Mexico take it very seriously and will go out of their way to shop the perfect ingredients, even if it takes all day.

The town of Puebla is usually given as the "birthplace" of the first mole but Oaxaca, from which many moles originate, claims to be the home of the seven moles, being the place from which all other moles came. Problem is, nobody seems to be able to agree as to exactly which seven are the famous seven. Below are the major eight contenders. Keep in mind that there are many versions of each of these as well as additional ingredient or substitutions. Moles can rarely be pinned down perfectly but there are some basic distinctions between each. Basically, there are two brick colored red ones, one black, one yellow, one green, one dark and gravyish, and one fruity mild red.

  • Mole de almendra: Red Mole with Almonds. Pretty much like a red or black mole (mole rojo or negro) but with a lot of blanched almonds. Often made with only ancho chiles, the drived version of poblanos. Or with both poblanos and anchos, which is unusual since usually fresh and dried chiles are used separately in Mexico. Usually, when they are used together, the fresh and dried version of the same chile is used. Besides almonds, cloves are used in mole de almendra. This sauce can be served over roast pork or chicken.
  • Mole coloradito: Little red mole. A milder brick-red mole. This one only uses ancho and guajillo chiles and always has nuts, raisins, and cinnamon (canela in Spanish). Tomatoes may be used and sometimes fried bread is added as a thickener. This mole is sometimes mixed up with mole rojo below which is sometimes called mole colorado. It is a red mole but many moles are red, so calling any red mole mole rojo can be a bit non-specific.
  • Mole negro: A very black mole. This one is spicy and contains chocolate and so, along with mole poblano is the type of sauce most people associate with moles. It uses the chilhuacle negro chile, the mulato chile, and the pasilla chile. The chile seeds and stems may be blackened and used. Almonds, sesame seeds, raisins, Mexican cinnamon, chocolate, and many more seasonings are used.
  • Mole rojo: Red mole which is sometimes called mole colorado. Colorado means "reddish" in Spanish and is a way of saying that something is sort of red..like the many of the canyons and cliffs of the state of Colorado. This mole uses exactly the same ingredients as mole negro but without blackened chile seeds and stems. Also, the red chilhuacle chile, rather than the black or "negro" as given above, is often used in Oaxaca. Sometimes quajillo chiles and/or peanuts are added.
  • Mole verde: Green mole. Uses the chile more Americans are familiar with, the jalepeño. Also, tomatillos, epazote, hoja santa (Mexican herbs), cilantro, and flat-leaf parsley. Sometimes thickened with masa (Mexican corn meal). In Puebla, a green mole with tomatillos would probably called a pipián verde.
  • Mole chichilo: Dark colored and gravy-like, it is similar to mole rojo and colaradito but the chiles are roasted very dark and blackened seeds may be included. Also, avocado leaves are included.
  • Mole mancha manteles: Meaning "table-cloth stainer." Mancha means "stain" or "spot" and manteles means "tablecloth.". This fruity red mole is often more a stew which contains a deep red mole with yams, pineapple, plantains, and chicken or pork. It can be used as an accompanying sauce, as well. The color is very rich and it certainly will stain a tablecloth.
  • Mole amarilo: Yellow mole. Not actually but orange in color. This one is spicy and is traditionally served more as a soupy stew with chunks of vegetables. It used the chilhuacle chile, the chilhacle and chilcosle, or the guajillo and de arbol. Tomatillos are usually used, along with cloves and cumin.

The recipe below is a mole amarillo stew with vegetables and chicken adapted from a recipe from Nancy Zaslavsky. Very simple, compared to many mole recipes, and a great introduction to real Mexican food that is not the typical Tex-Mex that we get in restaurants.

Nopales, the cactus paddles that are used in Mexico, could be used in this stew but they may be hard to find and difficult to work with. I've substituted okra, which I love, but you may not, because of it's mucilaginous texture, similar to the cactus. You can substitute green beans, or just forget the ingredient altogether. As well, substitute and experiment at will. The mole sauce is the point, you choose the vegetables.

nopales or edible cactus

Nopales - Edible Cactus

nopales or edible cactus

Nopales - Edible Cactus

You may be wondering about the tarragon. This is a substitute for the Mexican hoja santa leaves, or the avocado leaves, which would normally be used in Mexico. You will probably not be able to find either and even if you were to get a hold of some avocado leaves, they would likely be worthless as only the avocado that grows in Mexico has leaves that are aromatic. Fennel has an anise-like flavor and it is often recommended as a substitute, but I think tarragon fills the bill here as it has a bit more of a peppery flavor and is in the licorice family, so also has the anise like property. I've never actually bothered with the fennel because I did not want to have a bunch of leftover..as I don't like fennel very much.

A little tarragon goes a long way so don't be tempted to think more is better. A bit of basil and mint could also be used along with the tarragon but it is the anise flavor that stands out the most. Dried cilantro is another option. If you're using dried cilantro, you can throw some fresh chopped cilantro into the stew at the end of the cooking process, or, use fresh cilantro alone but wait until the end to add it.

Masa harina is used as a thickening agent. It is a special Mexican corn meal that is different than ours. It can be bought in many large chain grocery stores, in the international section. The guajillo chile used here is a dried chile that is used a lot in Mexico. This makes a spicy and flavorful stew that I hope, knocks your socks off.

Mole Amarillo con Pollo y Verduras

Yellow Mole with Chicken and Vegetables

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Sauce Ingredients

15 Guajillo chiles
2 whole allspice
2 whole cloves
1 tbs cumin seeds
1 tbs dried oregano
8 garlic cloves
5 to 6 tomatillos
1 small tomato
2 tbs vegetable oil

Stew Ingredients

2 lbs quartered red potatoes
2 lbs sliced carrots
6 okra, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen
2 cups chicken, chopped (uncooked)
1 tbs dried tarragon or cilantro
1 cup masa harina
3 cups water


First, roast the tomatillos and tomato. Peel the paper husk off the tomatillos and cut them in half. Leave the tomato whole. Toss them with olive oil to coat and season with salt. Place in a roasting pan or on a heavy rimmed cookie sheet and roast in a 375° oven for 20 to 25 minutes. The tomatillos should turn slightly brown and collapse. The tomato should wrinkle and collapse.

While the tomatillos and tomatoes are roasting, toast the garlic cloves, with peels still on, on a griddle or large skillet, over medium heat. They will soften and the peels may turn slightly black. At the same time, on the other side of the griddle or skillet, toast the chiles which you've split and deseeded. You will probably have to do another batch of chiles if you are using a skillet, to get them all done. Press the chiles flat with a spatula, skin side down, and toast for a few seconds. When they crackle a bit, turn them over and press down on the other side.

Cover the toasted chiles with 2 cups hot water and let them rehydrate for 30 minutes. Guajillos have a thick skin so make sure to rehydrate well. Meanwhile, remove the peel from the toasted garlic cloves.

Put the chiles, allspice, cumin, oregano, and garlic cloves in a blender along with the chile soaking water. Blend well. Remember, don't put the top on the blender tightly when blending hot ingredients. Just use a clean kitchen towel to cover the top or leave the top askew, so the the steam doesn't blow it off resulting in a big mess. Add the tomatillos and tomatoes and blend again. Press the sauce through a wire-mesh kitchen strainer, a little at a time into a bowl. If the sauce is too thick to push through, you can thin it down a bit with more hot water. Heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan simmer the strained sauce for about ten minutes.

Bring 12 cups of water to a boil and cook the potatoes and carrots for around 10 minutes. Add the okra, corn, chicken and tarragon or cilantro (if using fresh cilintro hold it until the last 5 minutes). Cook for five more minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the masa harina with the 2 cups of water, adding the masa a little at a time to blend it (otherwise it will be lumpy).

Slowly add the masa/water mixture to the simmering chile water sauce (not the vegetables). Add 3 more cups of water and cook until thickened. Combine the thickened masa-chile sauce with the boiling vegetables and stir. Taste and season as desired. Add a bit of sugar if you need more sweetness.

Serve in bowls with tortillas or along with rice.


Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael Douglas. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Bayless, Rick, JeanMarie Brownson, and Deann Groen. Bayless. Rick Bayless Mexico One Plate at a Time. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Zaslavsky, Nancy, and Morris Zaslavsky. A Cook's Tour of Mexico: Authentic Recipes from the Country's Best Open-air Markets, City Fondas, and Home Kitchers. New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1997.

Kittler, Pamela Goyan, and Kathryn Sucher. Food and Culture. Australia: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.

Raghavan, Susheela. Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007.

Hoyer, Daniel. Culinary Mexico: Authentic Recipes and Traditions. Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2005.

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