When is a sauce more than a sauce? When it is a mole sauce, a concoction indigenous to Mexico that often contains many unique ingredients and has a rich, velvety texture. Mole sauce's sophisticated blend of flavors earns it the right to be served as an entree, sometimes with a mere sprinkling of chicken or cheese on top, and with fresh tortillas and rice on the side for mopping it up.
Historians dispute the true origins of mole sauce. One version has it that, in the sixteenth century, the nuns at Puebla's Convent of Santa Rosa discovered that the Archbishop was en route for a visit. They scrounged around the kitchen to find food to serve him, but found little to offer. They prayed until an angel appeared and directed them to combine a seemingly random assortment of ingredients, including unsweetened chocolate, roasted chili peppers, walnuts, stale breadcrumbs, chicken stock and about 20 more items, resulting in a dark mole sauce. Another version states that Montezuma, the Aztec king, served mole to the Spaniards when they first arrived to his kingdom.
In southern Mexico, where mole-makers called "molinos" roast and hand-grind many ingredients, everyone has a favorite mole recipe. Black mole, containing chocolate, reigns as the most favorite version. Other common types of mole sauce include red, yellow, "coloradito" (deep red) and green. Among the more exotic versions are "manamanteles," or "tablecloth-stainer," "castillo," "chichilo," "estofado" and "pipian," which has the primary ingredient of pumpkin seeds.
In southern Mexico, mole sauce signifies a celebration. Everyone from gourmet chefs to people in the markets spend a day gathering ingredients that then get slowly roasted and combined. Cooks combine the ingredients in large ceramic pots over fires, which allows the ingredients to stew. Mole sauce shows up at weddings, Christmas banquets, and birthday and dinner parties, but it also serves as a quick dish when cooks saute leftover sauce with bits of tortilla and cheese, or scramble it with eggs.
With all its variations, what makes a mole sauce unique? The multiple ingredients are key, with 20 to 30 different foodstuffs and spices typically included. Roasting and stewing the disparate ingredients for the classic thick texture remains integral to the process. Mole stands out from salsa in that cooks roast, toast and boil ingredients for it. Mexican salsa typically contains raw or a combination of raw and cooked ingredients, resulting in a more watery texture than that of mole.
Many people refer to mole sauce as chocolate sauce, but depending on the recipe, there may be no chocolate and some surprise ingredients. Peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds or walnuts add a nutty flavor. Raisins, blackberries or other dried fruit impart sweetness or tang. Some mole sauces contain chicken, lard, squash blossoms or plantains. Multiple types of roasted chile peppers remain a constant, be they smoky chipotle or spicy ancho peppers.
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