My abuela resents cooking. By the time I came around as the first grandchild in 1984, she had been having to cook for our large family of eight since my own mother’s birth in 1962. And probably even before that. I have visions of grandma standing at my grandparent’s kitchen stove — the one whose oven did double-duty as storage space for an excess of pots, pans, and baking sheets — stirring a frying pan of ground beef for tacos, or gently placing tamales into a huge stockpot. Tacos were an almost every week occurrence, while tamales were, of course, an annual event made the night of Christmas Eve.
There was something special in the way my grandma made mole, though. While the mole itself came straight from the international section at the grocery store thanks to grandma’s utter aversion to cooking, the chicken thighs she would always serve with the mole were an all-afternoon endeavor. Simmered in water and the cult classic duo salt bomb of Lawry’s seasoned salt + Lawry’s garlic salt, the chicken fell apart at the bone when we’d just barely take a fork to it.
Back then my grandparents were more like my sister and brother and my extended parents.
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Even as we got older and had driver’s license with the literal license to spend time anywhere our cars would take us, a lot of the time we chose to hang out at grandma and grandpa’s. We’d do our homework at the dining room table while grandma prepped dinner for that night, all five senses turned to high volume by grandma’s cooking. The scent of the chicken thighs simmering away is what I remember most about mole nights. The velvety mole poured over the chicken — and on the occasions, grandma was feeling generous, Mexican rice — made the dish. Without the mole, the chicken was too salty, but somehow also lacked much flavor. God bless grandma. The mole made the biggest difference, and it’s really only now well into my mid-30s that I see the absolute beauty and bedrock in cooking that is a well-balanced sauce, a mole.
Long before I was a thought in my grandparent’s minds, my grandpa crossed a river into this country with his parents and fourteen other siblings. Coming from Guadalajara, the city in western Mexico best known for tequila and mariachi music, my family arrived in the U.S with the hopes of our ancestors and whatever else they could carry.
Mole is Mexico’s mother sauce, the way a béchamel or a hollandaise is to French cooking. The Mexican states of Oaxaca and Pueblo claim to be home to the mole, and it started with a legend, the way so much of Latinx culture does. Wanting to impress an archbishop and nuns during the Pre-Spanish period at a convent in Santa Clara, Pueblo they prepared a dish using what they had on hand — chocolate, chiles, day-old bread, and nuts and served it over turkey. Luckily for the nuns, the archbishop loved the sauce and the rest is, as they say, culinary history.
The ingredients used in both traditional and modern versions of mole include chile peppers, almonds or peanuts and pepitas for earthiness and inherent nuttiness.
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Cilantro for brightness and flavor; sweet ingredients like dried fruit; the bitterness of chocolate, and of course onion and garlic. These ingredients must come together in harmony with each other for the mole to be a success. The two classic moles — mole poblano (a deep reddish/brownish colored sauce made from ancho and considerably less chocolate than found in other kinds of mole ) and mole negro (a rich, black mole that relies on chocolate and a licorice-tasting herb called hoja santa) start off the same way: with chile peppers.
Building on flavor, mole ingredients must be roasted, toasted or be met with at least a kiss of fire before moving on to transforming the ingredients into a paste or powder. Chiles like ancho and chipotle are placed directly onto a stove top’s flame; pepitas and/or sesame seeds get placed in a dry skillet over medium-high heat to toast, bringing out the seeds’ inherent nutty flavors. The roasted ingredients are then placed into either a blender to create a paste or if you’re really wanting to stay true to mole’s roots, by hand using a molcajete. Water, or if you’re wanting more flavor — broth, is combined with the paste at this point and simmered on the stove until the sauce thickens and reduces in volume. At this point, mole is usually served the way my grandma served it: over fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs and mopped up with corn tortillas.
In the U.S., with all its proximity to authenticity, Mexican cuisine has long been translated for U.S. consumption.
CREDIT: laguelaguetza/ Instagram
The birth of Tex-Mex, a direct result of the combining of cultures, is one example of a translated Mexican food. However, in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, one Oaxacan restaurant pays homage to traditional mole. Guelaguetza, managed and operated by the Lopez family from Oaxaca has been a Los Angeles institution since its door’s first opened in 1994. “Mole to me is the perfect example of the beauty, evolution, and complexity of immigration,” Bricia Lopez, Co-Proprietor of Guelaguetza tells me in an interview via email. Guelaguetza, meaning an offering or a gift is just that — a gift to hungry Angelenos, and mole is the present eaters are lucky enough to feast on.
“Its ingredients are mostly Mexican, but items like sugar, cinnamon, sesame seeds, and cumin came from elsewhere,” said Lopez. “I always encourage people to make mole at home. Yes, it is laborious but as opposed to popular belief, it does not take days. Its complexity lies in its flavor, not the process.”
Serving up generous six-mole varieties, the 2015 James Beard Award-winning Guelaguetza has been credited with placing Oaxacan cuisine and its mole on the Southern California map.
About 340 miles north of Los Angeles, my sister drops a picture she’s taken of a recipe into my Instagram messages one night a few months ago.
CREDIT: laguelaguetza / Instagram
It’s a recipe for mole, so I instantly know that the mole is not our abuela’s. My sister and I have bonded over recipe-sharing, something I know makes our grandma proud of us — that we’re communicating even though I’m 1,500 miles away from home — even if we are connecting over something our grandma has always done out of obligation. It might seem counterproductive to tweak or update recipes that have been passed down between generations, but I’m arguing that recipes can evolve just like generations do. Being creative in the kitchen while using generations-old recipes as a kind of base for your cooking means bringing new life to not just your dish, but the history of the recipe. My grandma would have not wanted to use this mole recipe out of sheer protest of very involved cooking, but her two granddaughters — two people in a long lineage of Mexican food lovers and eaters — highly recommend it. And as Bricia Lopez says: “It [mole] is more than tradition, it’s our culture embedded in us.”
4 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, with seeds set aside
4 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, with seeds set aside
4 dried pasilla chiles, stemmed, with seeds set aside
4 dried negro chiles, stemmed, with seeds set aside
⅓ cup whole unsalted peanuts, chopped
¼ cup whole almonds, chopped
4 teaspoons sesame seeds
4 teaspoons pepitas
3 cups chicken broth
5 whole cloves garlic
1 La Abuelita disk Mexican chocolate
Salt, to taste
- In a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat, boil all chiles in water until the chiles rehydrate, about 8-10 minutes.
- While the chiles are rehydrating, add the chile seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds and pepitas to a medium-sized dry skillet set over medium-high heat. Toast the seeds until they give off an aroma, about 5-6 minutes.
- Transfer all chiles, toasted seeds and the garlic cloves to a blender with the chicken broth. Blend until mixture is very smooth, blending twice if necessary.
- Pour mixture into a large saucepan set over medium heat. Stir in the chocolate disk.
- Add salt to taste, reduce heat to medium-low and bring the mixture to a simmer. Stir frequently, until the chocolate disk has melted completely. The sauce will thicken and reduce as it simmers.
- Serve mole over chicken with a side of Mexican rice.