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Many Hands

When I ask how they make it, the courtyard erupts in laughter. “With help,” says the one toasting on the open hearth. “How we feel,” answers another wrapped in an apron stained with color. “Patiently,” responds the one pounding the metate. “With imagination,” declares the cook whose face shines from the cauldron’s heat.

To understand Oaxaca is to immerse in its complexities of mole. Every family prepares its own, the exact methods handed down through matrilineal lines, often with a few ingredients changed or some steps hidden from the next generation. Thus the evolution of modern mole is wrapped up in myth, in Nahuatl history, and in the knowledge passed through female bodies. In its contemporary global form, the chocolate-like condiment known as mole negro has gained recognition among foodies for its bitter, silky quality. The original mōlli (Nahuatl for sauce) was a chili pepper concoction which has morphed into a multiplicity of varieties — coloradito, chichilo, mancha manteles, poblano — that continue to flavor the lives of Oaxacans.

Mole making is a ritual in the communities, a spiritual homage to nature’s gifts. It is an act of love labor that takes days. The resulting sauce is a celebration of life. The sauce makers in the courtyard kindly invite me to join the process. They are generous with instructions as I help clean peppers, peel tomato skins, stir the broth. They chuckle when the spicy fumes make me cough. “The evil is coming out of you,” the chili soaker prophecies, thumping my back. Unlike me, the mole architects move effortlessly around each other. Their minds and forms make space for one another’s steps, their hands link and separate to a music I cannot hear. There is no hierarchy here — each person is vital, each gives of their time, each has worth to bring to the mole. 

When the community sits down for the feast, I notice a return to social stratums. The women cooked, the men eat. The conversation around the making of mole was centered on domesticity, ritual, making do. Now the talk expands, expounding on success, settling disputes. A few hands brewed with compassion. Now many hands reach for the fruit of that service, dipping steaming tortillas into the bubbling sauce, ladling it onto their chicken, sopping it up with their greasy fingers.

Trying to manage my plate of rice and vegetables lathered in mahogany hued mole, I think about how I’ve taught myself to perform eating in public. Shamed by elitist ideas of cleanliness and etiquette, I’ve surrendered tactile connection with food for the “superiority” of utensils. I’ve relinquished communal conversation for the “refinement” of chewing in silence. I’ve given up touching knees around the familial circle for an isolated “culture” of elbows hidden under tables. I ponder those learned practices now and about the ways they’ve cleaved me from enjoyment, satisfaction, participation. How can eating food together move beyond cursory gatherings where we conceal true hungers? How can ingredients stop being commodified and privileged by the few? How can those who only consume at the table also engage in the gift of cooking for others?

In Korean tradition it is believed that a person’s character is imparted into the food they cook. Tasting this Oaxaca mole, I can believe it. I savor the sacredness of the meal, the hopes of the many hands who toiled to perfect its layers, the desire to pass on lessons of the past for a better future. 


Serves  6 persons  Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes [Prep Time = 15 min. Cook Time = 1 hour 30 minutes]


6 whole dried ancho chilies  

5 whole dried guajillo chilies

4 whole medium sized ripe tomatoes

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 whole large white or gold onion

60 mL (¼ cup) vegetable oil

120 mL (½ cup) sesame seeds

4 1/5 grams (1 tsp) oregano

1/5 gram (⅛ tsp) ground cloves

1 2/5 grams (¼ tsp) ground pepper

6 2/5 grams (1 ½ tsp) ground cinnamon

30 grams (2 Tbsp) raisins

30 grams (¼ cup) slivered almonds

19 grams (3 Tbsp) bread crumbs*

2 Tablets Mexican chocolate, chopped (optional)

1 liter (4 cups) vegetable broth

salt to taste


  1. Remove the ancho and guajillo chili stems, cut slits individually into each pepper and remove all the seeds. You are looking for the flavor of the chili not the heat.
  2. Toast the chili peppers in a heavy frying pan over low heat for 10 minutes or until both sides of the pepper begin to blister. The guajillo chilies have thicker skin and may take longer to char.
  3. Place the toasted chilies in a bowl. Cover with very hot water and let them soak for 20 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, roast the onion, garlic cloves, and tomatoes in a skillet at medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes or until the skins of all these are completely charred. Make sure to turn the vegetables so that all sides get blackened. Remove and let cool, then peel the skins of the tomato, onion, and cloves. Slice the onion into thin pieces.
  5. In the same skillet at medium heat add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Toast the sesame seeds for 2 minutes or until they brown, being careful not to burn them. Remove and, if needed, add another tablespoon of oil. Now toast the slivered almonds and raisins until the raisins are plump (around 3 minutes) and the almonds are light brown in color (should take about 4 minutes).
  6. Finally, adding more vegetable oil as needed, toast the bread crumbs* for 12 minutes in the skillet or until they are crisp.
  7. In a blender puree the chilies along with half the water they were soaked in, tomatoes, onion, garlic, sesame seeds, oregano, cloves, ground pepper, cinnamon, raisins, almonds, and salt to taste until the mixture is smooth.
  8. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy pot over medium-high. Cook the chili sauce for 5 minutes or until thickened. Add in the vegetable broth and let cook for 20 minutes or until this mixture also thickens. Mix in the bread crumbs and the optional chopped chocolate. Set to simmer, stirring occasionally for another 20 minutes or until the sauce reduces to a silky thickness. Add salt to taste, if needed. 
  9. Serve mole over enchiladas, over sautéed or roasted chicken, or with tortillas. Share and enjoy! 

* BT Tip: If plantains are available to you, substitute 1 ripe plantain for the breadcrumbs. Make ½-inch slits in the plantain skin, place on an aluminum sheet and bake at 204℃ for 40 minutes or until completely cooked. When cool, peel and slice, then add to the blender. This will give a sweet, starchy thickness to the mole.


70 replies »

  1. Very good point about how we in western society have to treat eating almost antiseptically. No elbows on table, use your fork, no slurping your soup. Food ought to be embraced in the ways you described.

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