What is mole?

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What is mole?

The answer varies, but the first versions of mole (pronounced MOH-leh) were based on purées of dried chiles and spices ground in a stone mortar often with seeds and nuts.  As new spices were brought to the Americas, moles became more elaborate and required more complex preparation. Generally, today’s moles contain ground chiles, nuts, herbs and spices.

The story of mole

The story of the origin of mole is steeped in folklore from the 16th and 17th centuries, though as we’ll soon see it’s even older than that.

Two popular competing figures from Puebla, Mexico, Sor (Sister) Andrea of the Assumption and Fray (Brother) Pascual Bailón, a Dominican nun and Franciscan brother respectively, are said to have separately created what we know as mole.

Sor Andrea was tasked with preparing a feast for the visiting viceroy Don Tomás Antonio.  She concocts a mixture of chilies, chocolate, and spices resulting in mole—so called because she spent hours muele y muele (grinding and grinding) until it reached her desired consistency delighting all at the feast and posterity.

In the second tale , Fray Pascual, who like Sor Andrea is the principal cook in his convent, is in a hurry to prepare a meal for the visit of an important archbishop.  He accidentally drops a bar of soap into his cooking pot, ruining the dish.  In angst, he throws various chilies, chocolate, and spices in a different pot where’s he cooking turkey.  This concoction became mole poblano and delighted his guests going on to become one of Mexico’s culinary jewels.

These origin stories have been passed down orally ever since.  More recently, research shows that mole was an important part of pre-Columbian cuisine (i.e. at least 200 years before Sor Andrea and Fray Pascual!). Mole’s invention can be traced back to the Aztecs—in fact the word mole comes from molli, a Náhuatl word meaning sauce, mixture, or stew.  Molli was a thick sauce comprised of chilies, spices and chocolate and paired with a variety of meats though most frequently with turkey.

The ever-versatile mole

Some moles have as few as five ingredients while others have more than 30—My Mom’s Mole contains 25!  Mole’s versatility comes not only from the spices and ingredients but also from a personal touch mixed with the multiple culinary worldviews that have influenced it over time.

common mole ingredientsAdapted from Méndez-Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist.
Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
By permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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