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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. 


BT’s MOLE COLORADITO RECIPE

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


WHAT YOU NEED

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


WHAT TO DO

  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. What a journey…I can feel the zest of the room, smell the aroma and almost taste it…I don’t know of another concoction with so much depth to it, how incredible to experience this!

  2. I’ve only ever had restaurant mole, and I suspect its creation was not such a community event. I wonder if, lacking that ingredient, it lost some of its character?

    • As another reader was commenting, I do believe emotions get embedded into our food. Perhaps that’s why we remember certain childhood meals so fondly, not because they were cooked by the most talented chefs, but because we could taste our parents’ love in them?

      Hoping this finds you safe and well! Happy New Year, Dave!

  3. I regret to say that I’ve never tried mole. Your recipe sounds like a delightful labor of love. As I’ve aged I’ve understood the value of forming a relationship with the food I eat. This goes along with your idea of our spirit infusing the food that we create. It moves us out of the mentality of consuming and into experiencing. Wishing you a fabulous 2022.😁

    • “It moves us out of the mentality of consuming and into experiencing.” Yes. Exactly so. I think more and more about the ways in which I consume life and its consequences for how I wish to live. Wishing you an equally wonderful new year. 🥰

  4. What a lovely layered description of how mole is made. I’ve never tasted it, but your description and flavours it conjurs up make me salivate. May 2022 hold many joyful moments and delicious food experiences for you, Atreyee.

  5. An eloquently told story, Atreyee, with powerful and profound insights about the meaning of community and the magic of connections when “many hands” share the work through life-affirming yet ever-evolving traditions. Sending my gratitude and best wishes to you. 💜

  6. I will travel to Mexico even if it’s only for its food! (But of course, I will undoubtedly be impressed with its ancient sites as well.) In Indonesia we have a saying “wherever you stand on Earth, that’s where you have to uphold the sky” which more of less means one must follow the custom of the locals wherever he goes, including how to eat. This post of yours reminded me of this proverb. Happy New Year, Atreyee. I wish you good health and a lot of happiness in 2022.

    • I love this saying! What a wonderful way to see our individual responsibility to the world no matter where we find ourselves. I think you would very much enjoy the complex cuisine of Mexico. The world owes much to this part: the tomato, the corn, the squash, the bean, and of course chocolate. I can’t imagine how different cooking must have looked before these were introduced to other regions.
      Wishing you a very health and happy New Year, Bama!

  7. Beautiful description that I enjoyed even though I’ve yet to eat a mole (not that I’ve eaten many) that I liked, as they’ve always had peanut butter in them, so I was curious to see this recipe with almonds (which I also don’t like, but it’s a lesser evil for me), and I’m thinking that I could someday find a dish without nuts at all, as I love chocolate (which may be considered in that category, although not for me) and think it would be a wonderful taste without nuts! Hope for the New Year!! And all the best to you!

    • Thank you Karen! Yes, I’ve heard the same complaint from others about the nuts — totally understandable — I think making the mole without even the almonds would probably not take too much away from the sauce. Wishing you a marvelous New Year!!

  8. Hello, Atreyee! Just saw that you got my Calendar, good! And here you are, bringing us more delights from the wide world. Fascinating! I hope this year is good to you. Cin cin and buon appetito!

  9. Hello Atreyee,
    Wishing you and all your dear ones a Happy New Year. I sincerely look forward to your wonderful writing and images for the coming year and beyond. Take care and stay well always!

  10. You, my friend, have done it again. Taken something that is known only to those few who truly care and delved right into the craft. There is nothing quite like a warm bowl at the central market early of a morning. Yet that is only in the eyes of the beholder. The true pleasure is surely found in the heart of those who craft such an intoxicatingly wonderful mixture and share it with others. Your writing is timeless. It’s as if I have stepped back into the 1970s. Thank you

    • Wow, what a compliment! Thank you! I’m so happy I could bring you back in time with my story. Wishing you a very wonderful New Year. I’m so grateful for your continued support and kindness.

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