This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Celebrate Mexico’s True National Holiday with the Mysteries of Mole, first released on September 10, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: It’s the overshadowing of the Cinco de Mayo. Everybody always assumes that Cinco de Mayo is the Independence Day. And it’s been so commercialized. And people kind of assume that that’s it. So everybody forgets the actual September 16th.
PAULINA LOPEZ: People will decorate their homes and the towns and people with flags and people get together. And it’s a huge celebration. It’s like the Fourth of July here.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Probably most of you listeners have never heard reference to September 16—because in the U.S., it’s Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, that inspires tequila-fueled partying.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But—and this is never normally the case—this is an example of where Americans are kind of getting it wrong about another culture.
GRABER: Right. Cinco de Mayo celebrates a military victory over Napoleon’s French army in 1862, and it is, yes, celebrated in Mexico. But it’s celebrated with a military parade. It’s not a huge deal. September 16th on the other hand—
TWILLEY: That’s the real national holiday—Mexican Independence Day. And with a national holiday comes… holiday food!
BRICIA LOPEZ: The traditional dish to have during September 16th is the chile nogada because of the colors of the reds and the greens and the whites and it’s in that season when you have the best chiles.
GRABER: Chiles en nogada is a dish of chiles stuffed with meat, dried fruits, and nuts. It’s topped with a creamy white walnut sauce, and it’s sprinkled with pomegranates and herbs.
TWILLEY: It’s very delicious.
GRABER: And it’s green, red and white, like the flag.
TWILLEY: But it’s not the only delicious thing at your typical Independence Day party. Mexicans will make lots of antojitos, those are little snack foods like empanadas and tamales. And those will likely include something that is perhaps the true national dish of Mexico: Mole.
BRICIA LOPEZ: You know mole is always around. Mole’s a dish that’s there for—to celebrate life and to celebrate death. It is one of those dishes that it’s just always going to be there.
TWILLEY: This episode is all about that party essential—mole. And this podcast is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And right now I am dreaming about the mole I ate basically every day I was in Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico. But for those of you not familiar with mole, it’s an indigenous dish—
TWILLEY: Or is it?
GRABER: Okay, but it’s a sauce—
TWILLEY: Well, that part is not clear cut either.
GRABER: Wait, but at least it’s Mexican.
TWILLEY: Yes, and also no.
GRABER: This sounds like a Gastropod episode to me. And it is! But before we celebrate Mexican Independence with a generous helping of mole mysteries, we have our own anniversary to celebrate.
TWILLEY: Yes, if you don’t know it by now, you will never ever ever know it, but I’m going to tell you again anyway: It’s our birthday! That’s right, Gastropod is turning FIVE! This month!
GRABER: And, as you all know by now, that means we are spending this month celebrating.
TWILLEY: And you are invited—we are making a special birthday episode. Next episode. So stay tuned. And, you know, not to be pushy but if you do want to get us a special birthday gift, now would be the time! We’ve got a super special prize for anyone who donates between now and the end of this month—just go to gastropod.com/support.
GRABER: We’ll be offering this special birthday present for all of you, and of course for us, until the end of September. And if you’re a long-time Gastropod supporter already, don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you! We have a special present for you, too, in honor of our birthday.
TWILLEY: Plus, next episode we’re going to be telling you all about super cool new Gastropod merch! Lots of you have asked us if we were ever going to make Gastropod t-shirts and swag. And now we’re five, we feel like we’re ready! So flex those credit cards!
FERNANDO LOPEZ: My name is Fernando Lopez.
PAULINA LOPEZ: Hi, my name is Paulina Lopez.
BRICIA LOPEZ: And I am Bricia Lopez.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: We’re at Guelaguetza in the heart of Koreatown on Olympic and Normandie. 3014 West Olympic.
TWILLEY: And so were we. Guelaguetza is like the temple of mole in Los Angeles—we couldn’t make an episode about mole without visiting.
GRABER: The siblings can’t remember the first time they ate mole—it’s always been a constant in their lives. But Paulina has one particular vivid childhood memory of mole…
PAULINA LOPEZ: Our baptism. In our baptism there was mole, which my cousin fell into a big pot of it.
TWILLEY: Let’s give some context here. In Mexico, it’s not uncommon to wait to have your baptism party until your kids are a little older. Paulina was five when she and her little sister Bricia had their joint baptism party. And it was a serious party.
BRICIA LOPEZ: Just to give an idea, an average sized party in Oaxaca, if you have a baptism or a wedding. If you invite 300 people, that’s a small gathering. My cousin got married a couple years ago, he had 1,200 people at his wedding. So you can just imagine the amounts of food.
GRABER: Honestly, I can’t quite imagine the amount of food necessary for hundreds and hundreds of people. But I can imagine that there would be a bathtub-size bucket of mole. And dozens and dozens of kids.
BRICIA LOPEZ: And kids run, and kids hang out and kids trip and sometimes you’ll land in a bucket of mole.
TWILLEY: Uh, what? This sounds funny but actually kind of bad? Is the mole not hot?
PAULINA LOPEZ: It was kind of hot. It was hot.
BRICIA LOPEZ: It wasn’t burning.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: It wasn’t burning but it was—
BRICIA LOPEZ: It was hot. Yeah.
BRICIA LOPEZ: They just gave up—they just gave him a bath.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: They just cooked him up. We ate him.
BRICIA LOPEZ: We ate him that day.
PAULINA LOPEZ: Yeah. It was the highlight of our baptism.
BRICIA LOPEZ: They just hosed them down.
GRABER: The cousin was fine, the mole was fine, the party was great.
TWILLEY: A few years after this whole cousin-bucket of mole incident, the Lopez family moved to L.A. No connection.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: Our dad, Fernando Lopez, he actually moved here in ’93 from Oaxaca. And he moved here by himself and we were all back in Oaxaca. And during that year my mom would go around town and go to the markets and buy tlayudas and chapulines and chiles and she would ship it over. And he would sell these things door to door.
GRABER: One of the things he was selling was bags of mole. And his food was a huge hit among the Oaxacan community in southern California. California has the most Oaxacans outside of Mexico.
TWILLEY: While he was making his rounds, Fernando Lopez senior often drove past a restaurant at the corner of Olympic and Normandie. It would open as one thing and then close again and then open and then close.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: And he said himself, like you know if this restaurant comes to market one more time I’m just going to take it, because I really want to do a Oaxacan restaurant.
GRABER: People told him that was a horrible idea.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: Everybody said, you can’t do a Oaxacan restaurant. You can’t do just Oaxacan food. Nobody knows what it is. You have to—if you do Oaxacan food you have to at least do maybe Oaxacan food and maybe burgers, or Oaxacan food and tacos, or Oaxacan food and pizza. You have to have something that’s memorable, or that people recognize—otherwise you’re going to lose all your money. And he said you know what, I have faith in what I do and in my community and I understand how close my community is to the food, how important it is to us. And he saw it, you know, within himself that if he missed his food and his culture so much, every other Oaxacan in L.A. must miss it the same.
TWILLEY: So he opened his restaurant, and at the heart of his restaurant was mole.
ILIANA DE LA VEGA: Now, it is not ONE dish, that’s the only complication there. The mole, there are many moles. And I mean you go for the seven famous ones in Oaxaca but there are actually many more in Oaxaca. And then you go to the mole poblano, and the mole in Guerrero, mole de Xico. So they’re everywhere. And each one has its own characteristics and its own flavor. But yeah I think you know mole really defines, I guess, the complexity of our culture in Mexico.
GRABER: Iliana de la Vega is a Mexican chef who owns El Naranjo in Austin, Texas. So we’ve been talking about mole for a while, and now it’s time for some clarification. What is it?
BRICIA LOPEZ: If you were to compare it to I guess music, it’s just like a beautiful song that’s always playing in the background that it’s not only until it’s turned off that you realize, Oh my God why is it not there?
TWILLEY: That’s beautiful, but I find myself still asking: what is it? What is mole?
RACHEL LAUDAN: That’s a question I asked myself a lot. It’s not clear it is a thing or a dish.
TWILLEY: This is Rachel Laudan—she’s a wonderful historian and food writer whose most recent book is called Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.
LAUDAN: The classic definition dating from the early 20th century is a thick sauce made of three or four components. Ground chiles, ground nuts and seeds, ground spices, something acid, something sweet, something bitter, and thickener. And it turns into a very complex but harmonious sauce.
BRICIA LOPEZ: That combination of fire and smoke, that really is very much a staple of Oaxaca. That’s what mole is.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: I guess if you don’t roast the things. You know, if you don’t roast the chile—if it has no chiles, I would say it’s not mole. I don’t know. And it doesn’t make you feel good—I would say if it doesn’t make you feel good, it’s not a mole. Definitely.
TWILLEY: Okay, so: Mole makes you feel good, it’s like music that you miss when it’s not there, and it’s basically a sauce, but a sauce that has to contain three or four things: chiles and vegetables, spices, and then a thickener like ground nuts or tortilla.
GRABER: As Iliana said, there are a lot of different versions of mole that you can make with these basic elements. Mole Rojo, mole negro, mole poblano, mole de Guerrero….
TWILLEY: Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez is associate professor of Latin American history at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, and she took us even further down the mole maze.
SANDRA AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, so there are a lot of varieties. Probably, I can identify easily 10, which are the most common ones. So just in Oaxaca you have like seven different kinds of mole. In Puebla there might be two or three. But what I think is interesting is also that each family may have their own recipe.
GRABER: Fernando couldn’t even guess how many varieties of mole there might be.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: I mean if you look at a town, even just black mole. If you go to one town, every family makes it differently. So there’s still black mole but they’re all—you know there’s 100 recipes in one town. And then you get into the outskirts of the town and it becomes a little more different and you’re—is that really black mole anymore? There’s a lot of shades. It’s a spectrum of mole. Here we have you know, mole negro, mole rojo, coloradito, estofado, armarillo, verde. We have six moles, here at Guelaguetza.
TWILLEY: As was our professional duty, we tasted them all. And mole is really hard to describe. So the colaradito, that’s more orangey and we had it on chips, almost like a salsa but it’s more rich and smokey, almost creamy.
GRABER: We ate the mole negro, black mole, spread thickly with cheese on a huge tortilla called a tlayuda. It’s a little sweeter than the coloradito, and it has a stronger flavor of chocolate. Chocolate is actually a really common ingredient in Oaxacan savory dishes.
TWILLEY: But really, they were all delicious. And the thing I wondered is, with so many moles, how do you choose?
FERNANDO LOPEZ: Black is my favorite. You know, if I don’t eat it like every month or so I’ll dream about it. And I’ll come over and eat it.
PAULINA LOPEZ: Mine—I go back and forth between mole negro and coloradito because I think, Oh I love mole negro but then I have some enchiladas, I’m like, No. I love coloradito. And then I go back and I have a tamale negro and I’m like, No. It’s the black one.
BRICIA LOPEZ: OK. So if I’m having a tamal, it’s definitely going to be a black mole. If I’m having enchiladas, I’m definitely having coloradito. If I wanna have an empanada, 100 percent amarillo.
TWILLEY: So there are dozens of different mole sauces, one for every kind of dish and every mood, but there are also other kinds of moles, too.
LAUDAN: There is mole de la olla. The Mole from the pot which is a soup, vegetable and meat soup with ground chilies in it. And just to really complicate things, there are also huevos moles. Mole eggs.
GRABER: But like we said, mole is usually a sauce, and all of these moles taste different.
TWILLEY: So Rachel told us there are three major elements to a mole: the veggies, the spices, and the thickener. But there’s actually another really essential element, which is… time! This is not your 30 minute dinner.
DE LA VEGA: Making a mole, it’s labor intensive work. So if it’s like the mole negro, I mean it takes, for me here at the restaurant, three days to make it.
GRABER: Iliana starts with six different chiles for her mole negro. There’s a black one that’s native to Oaxaca called the chilhuacle negro. There are others that aren’t black—but then she roasts them all and they all become black.
DE LA VEGA: So once you have all those, you let them rest for a couple of days. And then you continue working with the rest of the ingredients. Let’s say, like for example tomatoes, tomatillos, onion, and garlic. You dry roast them, until they’re blackened, and then you save them separately.
TWILLEY: And she’s still not done because then she has to take her thickeners—in this case plantains and bread and seeds and nuts—and she has to fry them.
GRABER: Then Iliana dry roasts all of the spices that she’s going to use in the mole.
DE LA VEGA: Once you have all of that then you begin grinding. And stir frying that paste that comes out. And everything has to be also strained. So no pieces of chunks or anything, so it has to be as a smooth sauce. Once it’s done, all of that work, then you begin to reduce it, you know cook it for a long time. Then you’ll season it with the sugar, chocolate, and salt. So, and then it will be ready.
TWILLEY: Or you know you could order pizza.
GRABER: This is why mole is not everyday food.
DE LA VEGA: If it’s a birthday and you want something special you can make a mole.
LAUDAN: I remember a friend, when we were in Guanajuato, which is in central Mexico, he had a restaurant. His mother was a very good cook. And at Christmas she would make mole. It’s very time consuming, particularly the more complex ones. And our friend’s sister said, mole is great the first day, it’s okay the second day, but the end of the week, I have had mole. I have had it up to here. Because when you make it you’re gonna make it in quantity, and it lasts a long time. And you would make it therefore for celebrations.
TWILLEY: Celebrations like Paulina’s baptism.
PAULINA LOPEZ: Or my grandma you know taking me to weddings in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, you’ve been to a traditional wedding and they serve you these big pots of mole that you actually, afterwards they give you buckets. So you can take the buckets home. And then the next day you make you know tamales en mole or enmoladas or you know—it’s a celebration dish. And also I would say it’s also a community dish because like she was saying, people come together in celebrations of this kind, weddings, you know deaths, baptisms and they all make it together. It’s not just one person you know.
GRABER: It was a multi-day, often multi-person process. Mole is genuinely community food.
PAULINA LOPEZ: In my mind when I think about mole, I think about my grandma, I think about my family. I think about all those memories that we created as children around mole.
TWILLEY: That’s why even though Guelaguetza has six kinds of mole on tap every day of the week, Paulina doesn’t eat it all the time.
PAULINA LOPEZ: Even though we sell it at the restaurant—I go back to you know, what are we celebrating? Are we celebrating something? Then let me eat mole because I don’t want to lose that feeling with it. But yeah, when I eat it, I’m like why? Why did I wait so long to eat it? It’s so good.
TWILLEY: So now we know what mole is—I mean, it’s a lot of things, but I feel like I have a little bit more of a handle on it.
GRABER: Okay, but so where does it come from?
TWILLEY: Like I said, Rachel Laudan is a historian. But her first encounter with the history of mole was a story printed on a placemat.
LAUDAN: We were visiting Mexico. I was interested in food and I had heard that you had to eat mole poblano. And we went to a restaurant and of course they had the statutory placemat with the story of mole poblano being invented in a convent in the 18th century.
GRABER: This is the mole legend of the nuns. Sandra told us a slightly longer version of that story.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: In the sort of like origin of this dish, or the sort of like narrative goes that this was first cooked in a convent. So that the nuns were, and most of them of the Spanish descent, basically came up to create these meals. Some will argue that it was an outcome of a mistake that they threw a lot of the spices into the pot and then they didn’t know how to kind of like, suddenly make another dish. So they tried to work with what they already had. So that of course is more of the legend of how mole was first cooked.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: That to me just sounds like propaganda. You know, I mean I don’t understand how somebody can create mole overnight and come to this thing that I mean when you think about it and look at the ingredients and you see the history of the way the ingredients moved throughout the Americas and the continents through trade with these meso-American cultures.
TWILLEY: So there’s some skepticism. And some mixed messaging, honestly. Because the nuns in the story are Spanish. In Mexico yes, but of Spanish descent. But when you encounter mole in Mexico today, you’re kind of given the impression that it’s an indigenous dish.
CLIP ARCHIVAL CLIP
TRADITIONAL PIPE MUSIC
NARRATOR: In rural Mexico, in principally Oaxaca, chocolate is an important ingredient used to season the exquisite traditional dish mole oaxaqueño.
TWILLEY: That doesn’t make sense. How can it be indigenous and also invented by Spanish nuns?
GRABER: Rachel says that despite that nun story printed on her placemat, the idea that mole is an indigenous dish is pretty standard in Mexico today.
LAUDAN: It is certainly true that probably long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Mexican or indigenous women were grinding chiles and tomatoes and other substances, as well as maize for the daily bread, on a grindstone.
TWILLEY: What we don’t really know is whether they were turning those ground-up chiles and tomatoes and masa into a sauce. But it’s possible.
GRABER: So at least as far as ingredients go, the idea that mole has indigenous roots isn’t totally wrong.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: Key ingredients like tomato and chocolate, as well as turkey, because it was prepared traditionally with turkey, have an origin in the Americas. And of course all the chiles. That connects this dish with the pre-Colombian world.
TWILLEY: But sorry, the classic spices in a mole are things like cinnamon and cloves and cumin and then there are thickeners like ground almonds and sesame seeds—and those are from the Old World. They’re not native to Mexico. So what gives? How did all those non-indigenous ingredients get mixed up in traditional mole?
GRABER: The answer to that starts more than five centuries ago. Here’s the thing, when I go to Mexico, I want to eat all the delicious local foods. But that wasn’t the attitude back in the 1500s, when the Spanish first set foot there.
LAUDAN: When the Europeans arrived in the Americas, the last thing they really wanted to do was to taste the cuisine in New Spain, the cuisine of the indigenous. They were all what I called dietary determinists. They really did believe that you were what you ate, and they did not necessarily want to change who they were. In fact they were frightened of changing who they were, which was what would happen if they ate the food in the place they encountered.
GRABER: And so the Spaniards really loaded up their boats for the cross-Atlantic voyage.
LAUDAN: They brought their agriculture, they brought their horses and their cows and their sheep and their goats and their pigs. They brought their wheat. They brought their spices and their fruits. They brought the way they cooked. And they brought their eating utensils and their recipes and their whole idea about food.
TWILLEY: At the time, the dominant aesthetic in Spain and much of Europe was the Baroque. You hear about it in art and architecture, but Sandra says it infused cooking too.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: Baroque had, basically meaning this amalgamation of a lot of elements that ended up creating very sort of complex pieces of music, of art, of architecture. So basically the saturation of things. There is no void in baroque art.
GRABER: This is exactly what mole is, it’s super complicated, super saturated.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: Mole particularly has all these ingredients that go between 10 to 30 ingredients in the preparation of this dish. So that is the element that clearly comes from Spanish culture.
TWILLEY: So the aesthetic of mole—that style of super intense sauce—that’s Spanish. And so are a bunch of the ingredients, like I said.
GRABER: But wait, Rachel thinks the origins of mole go back even further in time, and even farther away from Mexico.
LAUDAN: It has deep roots I think in the Middle East and I like to emphasize that particular part of the tradition.
TWILLEY: At first, I was like, Middle East? But it makes more sense once you remember that large parts of Spain—actually, almost the entire Iberian peninsula, was once part of a giant caliphate ruled by North African Muslims called the Moors.
GRABER: And the Moors brought their traditions with them to Spain, some of those traditions of course being their dishes. Which hearkened all the way back to the what’s now Iraq.
LAUDAN: To go back though to mole specifically, what you find in the cookbooks of medieval Baghdad and the cookbooks of medieval Al Andalus, which is what that part of Spain was called in the Middle Ages, are a lot of sauces that are also purées, that are made with ground spices, with ground nuts, with acid elements. What they lack of course is the chiles and the tomatoes. But the general structure of making a sauce by grinding nuts and seeds and spices together, with some kind of acidic element and some kind of liquid is central to medieval Islamic cuisine.
TWILLEY: Rachel has actually spent a couple of decades tracing this complicated origin story for mole all the way back to the Golden Age of Islam. And she admits she was worried that her theory would be really controversial—I mean, mole is such an iconic dish in Mexico.
LAUDAN: When I first published on the European, or in fact Middle Eastern origins of much of Mexican cuisine, I thought I would be cut off at the knees by my Mexican friends. We were living in Mexico at the time. To my great surprise, everybody said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. We think you’re right.”
GRABER: So it looks like the mole mystery is solved. Indigenous ingredients and techniques mixed with Spanish ingredients and techniques that trace their roots all the way back to the Middle East.
TWILLEY: And that placemat nun story, that’s clearly BS. Right?
GRABER: Well, actually… Rachel says there might even be some truth to that nun legend.
LAUDAN: Nuns, in the American and British imagination perhaps, are these timorous cowering people who spend their time praying. You have to get rid of that notion for the convents in colonial Mexico. The convents were real powerhouses. Many of them acted as mortgage banks. They had large land holdings.
TWILLEY: These were some smart sisters. They came from rich families, they didn’t want to get married and become the property of a man, and they saw being a nun as a way to actually have a career, and own their own property.
GRABER: And among that property, well, there were people. They had slaves. Or they had servants. And while the nuns were Spanish, the people who worked for them, voluntarily or not, they were indigenous. And the nuns ran the whole show.
LAUDAN: They took on themselves the business of making their convents very profitable. Now from their land holdings they’re getting in the nuts, the chiles, the tomatoes. Everything that goes into making a mole.
TWILLEY: So the nuns are basically running a commercial kitchen, supervising their indigenous servants or slaves.
LAUDAN: There were about ten servants or slaves to every nun in a convent, who would add value to the ingredients coming into the convent from the land holdings by turning them into sweets or moles. And they would then sell these to interested customers who wanted fine cuisine. So this was, on the one side, a business, but on the other side it was also a spiritual exercise. Because the idea was you were taking raw uncooked food, which was like a raw uncooked novice nun, and turning it into a fine and elegant and sophisticated and cultured dish, just as the nun herself, as she moved through the period from being a novice to becoming the mother superior, gained in stature and culture and spiritual depth.
GRABER: So actually the convents do make sense as maybe the place where all these traditions and ingredients might have come together to create this now incredibly famous, time-consuming, and really baroque dish.
TWILLEY: Mole mystery solved. Except I still have one question. How did this hybrid become essentially Mexico’s national dish?
LAUDAN: After the conquest there are two great moments in Mexican history. Independence from Spain and the revolution of the early 20th century.
TWILLEY: In 1810, Mexico fought and won its war of independence from Spain.
LAUDAN: And around the time of independence from Spain, the Criollos, the people of largely Spanish origin, but of course they all were mixed, in New Spain want to distinguish themselves, as they become a republic, from the aristocratic and domineering Spanish of the Spanish peninsula. And they see cuisine as one way to do this. And they begin identifying with local ingredients like chiles and tomatoes, and with local vernacular Spanish names for dishes, like perhaps mole. And so that’s when it first creeps into the repertoire.
GRABER: But then by the late 1800s, things changed.
LAUDAN: Then there was a period of Frenchification of Mexican cuisine.
GRABER: So if you wanted to impress someone, you’d cook French food. Not local dishes such as mole.
TWILLEY: Then, a century after independence, there’s a revolution. In 1910, Mexicans revolted against their dictatorship, to establish a democratic government.
LAUDAN: And then after the revolution, in the early 20th century, when politicians are desperate to try to bring together this country that had been shattered by a really vicious civil war, they focus on the theory that Mexico is a country of mestizaje, of mixing. That you have indigenous and European roots. And this is when these legends of mole come in.
GRABER: That’s how mole became so famous. It was the ideal dish to show this melding of cultures, bringing all Mexicans together.
LAUDAN: Yes, it is. I think all cuisine is political, and this is particularly political.
TWILLEY: Mole became more than a dish, it became a symbol. But even so, for most of the twentieth century, French food was still top dog. Iliana says even when she was a kid growing up in Mexico City, French food was the fancy food.
DE LA VEGA: Nobody ate you know like, go to a fancy restaurant and eat Mexican food. The same thing if you were having you know very important guests, you will cook something French, not something Mexican, even if it could be better, right? But no. That has changed. Now you can invite and be very proud if you are cooking something Mexican. Because it’s very complex food, it’s very delicious, and is not easy. I mean, you have to be a good cook to cook Mexican food. Definitely.
GRABER: Today, Mexican food is definitely claiming its place as a rich, varied, and delicious cuisine. And mole plays a starring role.
DE LA VEGA: I mean I think it really encompasses the mestizo culture that we are. We have you know the indigenous roots. Plus we have all these ingredients from Europe and techniques, different techniques from, you know like frying and things like that. So yeah, definitely it is like the dish of Mexico.
TWILLEY: That said, this whole-hearted embrace of mole is a pretty recent thing. Bricia Lopez told us that mole is fundamentally seen as a dish of the south, in Mexico. And the south of Mexico is mostly poorer and sometimes it’s been seen as backwards.
BRICIA LOPEZ: I think that if you are from Mexico, especially if you are from Oaxaca, growing in the 70s, 60s, 80s, you know it’s pretty much the same thing as if you were growing up in the 60s in the deep South. You know you there’s so much racism and so much classism and so much put down of your culture.
GRABER: Still today in the U.S., Mexican food is often considered kind of cheap food. Going out for a meal at Guelaguetza isn’t super pricey, but you’re not ordering dollar tacos.
BRICIA LOPEZ: And when people say to me things like, That’s really expensive. Like, why do you charge so much for your mole? There’s nothing that irritates me more because when you say that to me, I don’t hear: Your mole’s expensive. I hear: Your culture isn’t worth paying for. Or your culture isn’t worth that—because if you can pay for a handmade pasta with beautiful marzano tomatoes and you know, you have no issue. But you don’t want to pay for handmade tortillas with corn that’s been brought from Oaxaca with a sauce that takes hours and hours of labor and love to make. I’m not saying one is worth more than the other one. I’m just saying things need to be equalized.
TWILLEY: Bricia’s family’s restaurant, Guelaguetza, is a big part of that leveling up.
BRICIA LOPEZ: Guelaguetza—just as big a word as it is, it has a really, really big meaning. And it’s not just one thing, right. The word itself, if you do a direct translation, it means reciprocity: To give, to receive, to share. And it’s also a tradition in the towns of Oaxaca. So for example, if somebody was to have a party or a celebration of sorts, a wedding, a baptism, their neighbors would come and gift them, let’s say, a sack of beans or a chicken or a goat. And then you would have a little book that was your guelaguetza book and you would write down you know, Mr. So-and-so brought me this for this party. And when he celebrates something, whether it’s his kid getting married or again a quinceañera, then I would come and say Oh, I’m going to return the favor that he did for me.
GRABER: Guelaguetza is also a celebration, it’s the name of an actual festival. There are days of dancing in the streets and drinking mezcal and eating lots and lots of food—of course including mole.
BRICIA LOPEZ: And it’s really a way for the towns around Oaxaca to share a little bit of who they are to the world. So it’s like their guelaguetza to the world. So then for us, Guelagetza, this restaurant, is a part of who we are to Los Angeles. It’s our gift to Los Angeles. It’s our way of saying thank you to the city and you know really sharing what we love more, which is family, food, and culture. And it’s our little guelaguetza to L.A.
TWILLEY: And as an Angeleno, I am very grateful!
GRABER: At first, though, Guelaguetza’s celebration of all things mole was really just for their fellow Oaxacan expats. That’s how Bricia, Paulina and Fernando’s dad saw it.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: He grew it with just with the community, with the Oaxacan community. And for a long time it was a Oaxacan restaurant for Oaxacans.
BRICIA LOPEZ: They weren’t really seeking anything else because my dad always said, If I can make someone from Oaxaca happy and reminisce and remember what it’s like to have their food, that’s really all I want to do. And it wasn’t until Jonathan Gold walked in and wrote about it that really opened up our restaurant to so many other people that read The Times.
GRABER: For those of you who don’t know, Jonathan Gold was an incredibly famous food writer whose reviews were basically love letters to the varied communities and food in Los Angeles.
TWILLEY: He was and remains, even posthumously, the fairy godfather of L.A.’s immigrant restaurants. He is the reason Angelenos like me know to go to Guelaguetza. And lots of us do!
BRICIA LOPEZ: But I think that most of our customers to this day are still Oaxacan natives. We are still really much a family restaurant that is very much celebrated in the Oaxacan community.
GRABER: Bricia and her siblings took us into the kitchen. Like at Iliana’s restaurant, their mole takes days to prepare.
PAULINA LOPEZ: These are chiles that have been roasted and we’ve been grinding them. And we use that machine for when we grind or mole spices and our chile spices.
GRABER: And of course they use a blender to mix the whole thing together. Iliana makes hers the same way.
DE LA VEGA: For me, it has been always the way to go! I mean I know how to use a matate, but definitely I won’t be a cook if I need to use that all the time. It’s a lot of labor to be kneeling down on the floor and then grinding all the ingredients in a matate.
TWILLEY: A metate is a grindstone— literally, a stone you grind things on. Rachel says it’s really the reason that mole exists.
LAUDAN: I think the reason why Mexican cuisine is the way it is, and with mole as its kind of crowning glory, is partly technological. And the technology is the grindstone. The simple grindstone, which is the kind of grindstone where a woman kneels down and moves a stone backwards and forwards across a lower stone.
GRABER: European and Middle Eastern cooks had abandoned that kind of grindstone for a mortar and pestle, and those just aren’t strong enough to make something like mole.
LAUDAN: But in India and in Mexico the simple grindstone continues right down to the present. And it is the perfect instrument for making these complex pureed sauces. So the Spanish in New Spain, with their multiple indigenous servants, used the indigenous tool to make moles.
TWILLEY: And so this kind of hand-ground sauce kept being made for much longer in Mexico than it did in Europe or the Middle East.
LAUDAN: At the point in the mid-20th century when finally the people begin to be released from the awful labor of grinding on their knees, lo and behold: there’s electricity and the blender. And you can move smoothly from the grindstone, the metate, to the blender to make your mole. And I think that’s an important part of the story.
TWILLEY: Basically, Rachel says, the grindstone is what allowed mole to emerge, but the blender is what has allowed it to survive till today.
GRABER: The blender saves time, yes, but mole is still a lot of work. And so an enterprising Mexican woman named Doña Maria took advantage of blender technology in 1968. She was the one who made mole available to even more home cooks—cooks who didn’t have the days they’d need to prepare the ingredients to then put them in a blender.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: So she was a woman who started preparing like mole in her own kitchen and everybody loved it. And they said, Well why don’t you start commercializing it and selling it.
GRABER: And she did—and it was a success.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: Doña Maria became definitely synonymous of mole particularly in urban areas where women work, and may not have the networks or the time to basically devote two or three days to prepare a dish.
TWILLEY: Doña Maria jarred mole paste is now in every supermarket in Mexico and in areas where there are lots of Mexicans. It’s like buying Ragu instead of making pasta sauce.
AGUILAR-RODRIGUEZ: I definitely think there is a big difference in terms of flavor and texture but well, that’s something that, if you are far away, it’s what you may have handy and you don’t have necessarily skills or the time to prepare everything from scratch.
GRABER: Even Iliana doesn’t mind the pre-made stuff, if she can find a good paste. Doña Maria isn’t the only jarred mole on the market these days.
DE LA VEGA: Well if it’s good quality and you know the vendor, then it’s okay. Then I can say, okay, I wake up in the morning and I’m thinking, Okay I’m gonna serve mole today for lunch. But only if it’s a good paste.
TWILLEY: Bricia says no one in Oaxaca eats Doña Maria.
BRICIA LOPEZ: But that’s because you can just go to the corner and find the best thing possible.
GRABER: And one of those best things is actually pre-prepared mole paste. Made right there in Oaxaca. But it’s usually sold in a little plastic bag.
BRICIA LOPEZ: It’s not a bad thing. I think that for example, when you are having a party, you’re not gonna buy paste for your party.
TWILLEY: Bricia said, when you have a party, you have to do everything from scratch.
BRICIA LOPEZ: But people who cook every day, it’s so common and there’s always a family in town that everyone knows: Oh these women are roasting chiles this weekend and they’re making the paste this weekend. Oh let’s go buy some, so we can have some for, you know for next month or whatever.
BRICIA LOPEZ: It’s a way of living and really it’s a way of maintaining the economy going in small towns like that.
TWILLEY: So buying prepared paste is, actually, really traditional. And even if you buy the paste, you still have to do some cooking. It’s just paste. You have to add the broth and the tomatoes etcetera.
FERNANDO LOPEZ: Like my sister said, if you’re gonna make it from scratch, you’re gonna make a ton of it. If you’re gonna have dinner, you have a few friends over, buy a jar, and you’re still adding your own sazon to it, you’re still roasting your own tomatoes, you’re still doing little things, you can still make it your own.
GRABER: So the blender changed how the mole is made. But what about what it’s made from? Are the recipes sacred, or do the Lopez family and Iliana come up with their own spins?
TWILLEY: Iliana has—she’s changed the fat she uses in her mole.
DE LA VEGA: When the Spaniards arrived and they brought a lot of ingredients with them, also they came with the fat that they didn’t use in pre-Colombian times. So the common fat at that time, it was the lard.
TWILLEY: Like Rachel said, the Spanish conquistadors brought their pigs with them, and that meant that pig fat became the normal fat in mole.
GRABER: Iliana decided to break with that tradition. In her first restaurant in Oaxaca, she started making her mole only using vegetable oil, not lard.
DE LA VEGA: Because I like the clear tastes of the pure taste of the chiles and the spices and everything, and I think the lard covers up a little bit of that. So I’d rather use a non-flavor oil.
TWILLEY: But of course, Iliana’s messing with an iconic dish here, so there was a little bit of freaking out. Mexicans weren’t sure that mole made without lard was actually mole.
DE LA VEGA: Well, they thought like it was you know, heresy not to use lard or something like that. And then eventually, what’s really interesting, when I came back, and after they almost crucified me for not using lard, eventually I talked to people, very traditional cooks: And what fat do you use? And they say, No, vegetable oil I think is better. It’s like, Oh thank you very much! You know, now they’re doing the same thing as I did!
GRABER: But other than that one change, Iliana’s not really messing with the mole basics. Neither are the Lopez siblings.
PAULINA LOPEZ: No we don’t. We don’t mess with the recipe.
BRICIA LOPEZ: No. Mole, it’s like baking. When you’re making mole, it’s almost like you’re baking, you know. You need to know exactly how much you’re putting in it because otherwise it’s unbalanced. You know it’s really—like that’s the way I see it. My mom even, when she makes it home, she measures stuff because you know it’s—and I know a lot of people say, I just put this and this and that. Not when it comes to mole. No. They know their ratios of chiles to tomatoes.
TWILLEY: You don’t freestyle a mole. That said, Bricia’s open to using her traditional mole in non-traditional ways.
BRICIA LOPEZ: For example this past weekend I had a barbecue in my house and I just mixed our paste with brown sugar, a little bit of salt and pepper and I made mole ribs. And I made a rub and I rubbed all over them. I let them sit for about an hour and then I smoked them for two hours and they were amazing. And I just keep thinking to myself, Oh my gosh this is something that no one in Oaxaca does because we don’t have—first of all but we don’t have a culture of smoking barbecue, right. We do underground pit barbacoa, but we don’t have that American tradition of, you know, smoking ribs on the weekends. So the idea of just marrying those two things, it’s one of these things that you get when you mix cultures together.
GRABER: Bricia said the ribs were totally the hit of the party. Traditional ingredient, new way of using it.
TWILLEY: Basically, at the end of the day, sure, you could make a new kind of mole. But why mess with success?
DE LA VEGA: I mean it’s really nothing better that you can do to it. You can create your own, if you will. You know that’s something that a lot of cooks have done, like making a pine nut mole or things like that. So that’s okay. But actually, I mean those flavors have been passed down for generations, they are so tested. So how can you do something better than that? It’s kind of difficult nowadays. I mean for more creative than you are, I don’t think, nothing can surpass the flavor of a black mole. Honestly speaking. They are perfection, they’re made to perfection, really.
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Bricia, Paulina, and Fernando Lopez for hosting us at Guelaguetza, and Jennifer Lopez who helped set up our visit. If you are in L.A., you have no excuse: you need to eat there and sample their heavenly mole for yourself. If you are not in L.A., I pity you, but don’t feel too sad—Guelaguetza sells three kinds of mole paste in jars on their website, we have a link at gastropod dot com.
GRABER: And if you really want to get your hands dirty and you have some free time, you can make their mole from scratch yourself! They have a book coming out October 22 with their mole recipes. It’s called Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.
TWILLEY: Bricia promises they’re the real deal.
BRICIA LOPEZ: A lot of people always told us, You don’t really have to put the right recipe in the book. My answer was always: I just want my children to be able to make these.
GRABER: Thanks also this episode to Iliana de la Vega, chef of El Naranjo in Austin. And to Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, and to Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez of Moravian College. Links, as usual on our website, gastropod.com. And special thanks to our amazing former intern Emily Pontecorvo who helped produce this episode.