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Young Oaxacans find their roots cooking a classic dish: mole

Hundreds of years of mole tradition faced the worst fate of traditions — being forgotten. A new generation of Oaxacans are working to make sure the quintessential dish lives forever.

OAXACA, Mexico (CN) — “Every time I would come to visit there would be a party, and I’d be watching, helping, and learning from my grandmas and my mother, my aunts and sisters,” said Miguel Ángel Sánchez of Azucena Zapoteca, an airy and colorful traditional Oaxacan restaurant about an hour south of the state capital. 

The 27-year-old chef belongs to a larger cultural trend being seen in Oaxaca at the moment: he is rescuing the traditional recipes for mole (pronounced mo-lay) and other Oaxacan staples from the negligence of generations past. 

To understand exactly how the moles of his progenitors were in danger of being lost requires a look back into the recent history of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and its relationship to the world beyond its borders. One of the country’s poorest, Oaxaca was drastically affected by the shift toward globalization in the second half of the 20th century. 

Factors like modernization, urbanization, and migration altered how Oaxacans saw both the outside world and the customs their ancestors had staunchly developed, defended, and maintained through centuries of colonization. The cultural conquest of globalization, however, would prove to be a threat wholly different from the Spanish priests and conquistadors of the previous five centuries. 

“Previous generations that migrated to other parts of the world put Oaxacan culture to the side, and when they came back they brought other customs with them,” said Jorge Bueno, official historian of Oaxaca City. He dates the beginning of this turning away from tradition to the trend of migration in the 1940s and ‘50s, the effects of which began to be seen in Oaxaca when these workers returned home to build new lives for themselves with the money they had saved from working abroad. 

Chef Miguel Ángel Sánchez chars chile peppers for mole negro. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Modernization — everything from television to broad highways and fast cars — had a huge impact on Oaxacan society, and beginning in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people stopped valuing our own culture,” said Bueno. 

Because of this, recipes for dishes like the mole negro, or black mole, of Azucena Zapoteca in San Martín Tilcajete were in danger of being forgotten. And when oral traditions are forgotten, they are quickly lost. 

However, with the advent of tourism to Oaxaca, visitors from abroad came poking around and asking questions about what people were cooking, building, painting and distilling, and young Oaxacans began to see that there was value in the things their fathers and uncles had turned away from. “You start to realize that what you’ve got right here at home is worth preserving,” said Bueno. 

With 570 autonomous municipalities, the most of any state in Mexico, Oaxaca has long been known as a place that fiercely holds to the traditions that make up its wide-ranging set of cultural identities. And while the state is rich with colorful and lively customs — from energetic dances to fantastic woodcarvings to vivid embroidery styles — it’s the food people cook that most strongly ties Oaxacans to the place of their birth. And no other dish is more representative of that connection than mole negro. 

Bueno noted traditions like preparing mole negro were usually passed down orally from mother to daughter in the kitchen, “but today we’re starting to see lots of young men showing a passion for cooking.”

This trend is what is being actively fostered at establishments like Azucena Zapoteca.

“It’s a privilege for us as young people to be able to learn about mole and make the recipes of our grandparents,” said Diego Iglesias Hernández, manager of the gastronomical projects of the Jacobo y María Ángeles woodcarving workshop, which opened Azucena Zapoteca nearly 20 years ago. “We’re rescuing their recipes, making sure they’re not lost.”

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Burnt tortillas are an integral ingredient in Oaxaca's mole negro. Other possibly surprising constituents include charred chiles, seeds, tomatoes, plantains, and more. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Such recipes, with their disparate and often diverging origin stories and lengthy lists of ingredients, can appear to be shrouded in mystery to the uninitiated. The mole negro at Azucena Zapoteca includes everything from fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, and plantains to toasted almonds, pecans, peanuts, raisins, sesame seeds, and various spices, but the key constituent is the burning. 

Miguel and every other chef that makes mole negro in Oaxaca starts by blackening dried ancho and pasilla chiles and their seeds — extracted before preparation — on a ceramic griddle called a comal. Later, a few homemade corn tortillas are burnt to a crisp and tossed upon the heap of ingredients before the batch is sent off to the miller to be made into a paste. This bitterness will be balanced into a delicious smokiness with a heavy helping of sugar and the restaurant’s own traditional chocolate recipe.

The burnt ingredients provide the key flavor that ties all recipes for mole negro in Oaxaca together as the state’s flagship culinary tradition. 

“Through the burning of the chiles, seeds, and tortillas, the fine and subtle flavor of smokiness is reborn,” said Celia Florián, head chef and owner of Las Quince Letras, a fine dining establishment that has been making mole in Oaxaca City’s historic downtown for the last 30 years.

Florián rejects the local tourism myth that there are seven mole recipes in Oaxaca. She and her fellow experienced chefs like to say that there is an infinite number of ways to make mole, whether it be black, red, yellow, green, or the carmine hues of a manchamanteles, or “tablecloth stainer.” For mole negro alone, there are a near-infinite number of ingredient variations, but the common denominator in all of them is the burnt chiles, seeds, and tortillas. 

And it’s the combination of this hyperlocal uniqueness and the pre-Hispanic technique of burning that links them all together, making mole negro the perfect symbol for Oaxacans’ revived interest in the place's homegrown customs. 

“Each community has a spiritual connection to the mole made in it,” said Florián. “Each is a different way to celebrate. It’s a festive dish with which we celebrate life, birth, and also death.”

The mole trio at Las Quince Letras features three of Oaxaca's most emblematic moles: (left to right) coloradito, or red mole; mole negro, or black mole; and estofado, made with almonds and other local ingredients. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

But it’s also a dish found on the set lunch menus known as comida corrida, served in small, homestyle eateries any day of the week in all regions of Oaxaca. 

“It’s a real treat to eat mole in a Oaxacan kitchen, in someone’s home, because you’ll get to try something festive when there’s not even a party going on. That’s the wonderful thing about Oaxaca,” said Florián, who heartily agrees that people in Oaxaca are almost always celebrating something. “It’s true, but well, there’s just so much to celebrate!”

For Florián, this recent development in Oaxacan cuisine is merely the natural progression of a dish like mole. “Mole evolves. It’s not static at all,” she said. “Yes, the tradition of making it is ancestral, but just like other traditions in Oaxaca, it has been changed and evolved over the centuries to become what we know as mole today.”

The generations to come may take this dish to places never thought of in previous centuries, but mole made here will still have the overarching quality of being distinctly Oaxacan, no matter what future chefs decide to throw into the mix.

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