SAN PEDRO ATOCPAN, Mexico — Few dishes central to Mexican cuisine are as little-known outside the country as mole, the thick, dark sauce redolent of chocolate, anise, chili peppers, sesame and myriad other complex flavors.
That's because mole is as laborious to make as it is delicious to eat. It can take days to hunt down, prepare, grind, brown and mash the ingredients.
Mole (pronounced MOE-lay) dates to Aztec times, and its many variants commonly are served in Mexico on special occasions.
"We eat moles at festivals, weddings, birthday parties, even at wakes," said Gabriel Sanchez de la Cruz, a spokesman for this mountain town a little more than an hour's drive southeast of Mexico City, where a national mole festival is under way.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to San Pedro Atocpan each October to dip into an endless variety of dishes made with the sauce, which holds an honored spot in the national cuisine. The town claims to make 60 percent of the processed mole that's sold in Mexico.
One survey found that 99 percent of Mexicans have tried mole or regularly eat it in dishes such as mole poblano atop chicken, enchiladas with mole or mole on chilacayote, a type of squash. Different varieties of mole are flavored with almonds, pine nuts or mashed fruit.
Mole's texture is thick and slightly oily. Think heavy barbecue sauce. Ground peanuts and sesame seeds — as well as the optional lard — give the sauce its heaviness. The flavor is peppery, nutty, earthy, cocoa-y and smoky all at once, with elements of fruitiness tossed in. It can be as hard to describe as good varieties of wine.
Bite by bite, mole sauces are making headway in the United States. For a formal state dinner at the White House in May, President Barack Obama invited a guest chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, who put a Oaxacan black mole on the menu. It was a brave move. The guest of honor was President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.
"I chose the black mole because it is one of the most complex moles flavor-wise and one of the most difficult to make. It took me over 20 years to get it right," said Bayless, who's the chef at Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
"Shopping for it alone is daunting," Bayless added, providing his own recipe to McClatchy. "But I always encourage all home cooks to try recipes or projects" — building a pit to roast a suckling pig, for instance — "I think it is great to push yourself."
Bayless' version of mole comprises 26 ingredients. Other recipes call for more than 30, providing an overlay of gastronomically complex flavors.
The word "mole" is derived from the Nahuatl word "mulli" or "molli," for sauce or concoction. It's commonly prepared with four types of dried chilies — mulato, pasilla, chipotle and ancho — which must be seeded and ground into powder.
As recently as a few decades ago, the chilies were ground by hand on metates, or stone slabs. Dozens of women would take part in communal events for weeks before annual festivals.
"I remember that you'd see two lines of 25 metates, and everyone would grind face to face," said Angelina Cordero, a mole maker.
Grinding the chilies was the most laborious part of making the sauce, and the advent of small electric mills in recent decades hastened preparation. Readying the chilies is still time-consuming, however.
"You have to work with a tiny knife to cut the chilies open and get out the tiny seeds," said Beatriz Meza Retana, the spokeswoman for the National Mole Festival.
Mole recipes are often family secrets. Juanita Evillano, the 64-year-old owner of El Jacal restaurant in San Pedro Atocpan, said she first learned how to make mole when she was 8 years old.
"I learned from my mom and my grandmother. It's been coming down from generation to generation since pre-Hispanic times," she said.
After the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago, cooks began to add new ingredients such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sesame seeds from the Arab world, cloves from the Far East, and sometimes anise and coriander seeds.
Over the decades, mole makers took some of the pungent bite from the chilies by throwing in unsweetened chocolate, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and different types of fruit, such as ground raisins and fried banana, specifically a type known as a platano macho.
"The banana is used so that it's not too spicy," Evillano said.
Still, the complex aroma of mole is such that security officials at Mexico City's international airport told the Reforma newspaper earlier this year that passengers carrying mole were triggering bomb-detecting equipment. They asked passengers to declare if they toted mole sauce or paste to avoid unpleasant delays.
At the high altitudes and cool temperatures of central Mexico, semi-processed mole paste can be kept for six to eight months unrefrigerated, several producers said.
Town leaders of San Pedro Atocpan, population about 9,000, say that 92 percent of its adults take part in the artisanal making of mole, sending it to Mexico City and around the nation in large plastic buckets. Producers tweak their recipes and claim special qualities for their own moles. One shop claims that its sauce never produces the indigestion for which heavy mole sometimes is known.
When one producer, Angelina Cordero, was pressed to reveal her secret ingredients, Sanchez, the town spokesman, jumped in: "What you're asking are very specific questions that would reveal part of the patrimony of San Pedro Atocpan."
Town fathers are trying to develop a seal of geographical origin to give the mole produced here a special boost, like champagne from France, Iberian ham from Spain or special balsamic vinegar from Italy.
Prepared mole in jars or sealed packs often is available in large supermarkets in the United States, but none of it yet comes from San Pedro Atocpan. The town's small producers are still trying to master the quality-control rules needed to export.
"It's going to happen," said Manuel Trujillo, an engineer at Don Pancho, the biggest mole producer in San Pedro Atocpan. "The strongest enterprises will start to export to the United States and Europe."
Demand for mole among Mexican immigrants to the States will drive the market, Trujillo said, and slowly the palate of non-Hispanics may take to the sauce.
In the end, Cordero broke down and revealed the secret ingredient in her almond mole: "Love, always love, so that it tastes better. Yes, love, yes!"
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010