With a discerning eye, Chef Alfonso moved systematically through the maze of vendor stalls overflowing with fresh produce and other locally grown provisions. It was here at Abastos Market that Chef began our cooking class, leading us on a hunt for the ingredients to make Oaxaca’s most famous and complex dish.
Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles”, an array of colorful sauces made from roasted ingredients ground together and slow simmered. The most celebrated of the seven is mole negro, a sweet and savory “black” mole containing a complex list of 20 or more items, including Oaxacan chocolate.
As we efficiently collected the components of our menu, I noticed pre-made mole being sold in paste and powder form. As one who buys bland lifeless mole in a jar at my supermarket back home, I would normally fill my basket with these authentic and aromatic moles. On this day; however, we were going to make mole the hard way.
As soon as I stepped into Alfonso’s spacious, well-equipped, and colorfully decorated kitchen, I knew this was going to be an educational and flavorful day. Getting right to work, we laid out our purchases, and began measuring, chopping, and toasting the pieces of our mole puzzle.
Like an orchestra conductor, Alfonso showed us how to blend the flavors harmoniously into a perfect symphony of texture and color. Instead of music, a composition of distinct smells combined to fill the kitchen with the unforgettable aroma of mole negro.
As with any complex sauce, it takes time to simmer mole negro down to its full dark color and velvety smooth consistency. While we waited, Alfonso offered us some authentic Oaxacan drinks and snacks. A popular non-alcoholic beverage is Oaxacan chocolate, combined with almond and cinnamon, that he simply dissolved in hot boiling water.
For something a little bit stronger, we sampled some homemade mescal, a double-distilled spirit made from the core of the agave plant. Somewhat akin to tequila, mescal usually has a disagreeable smoky campfire taste. Alfonso’s smooth homemade brand was more earthy like rain falling on freshly cultivated soil.
Since we were drinking dirt, why not eat some grasshoppers? A very common snack here in Oaxaca, those long-legged jumping insects are called chapulines. When they are deep-fried and chili-spiced, they taste a little like peppery papery-thin shrimp tails.
After another pinch of chapulines and a couple more shots of mescal, our mole was ready. Plated with a chicken leg, deep-fried plantains, cubes of queso fresco, and squash flowers, our mole negro wasn’t actually black, but more of a melted dark chocolate brown color.
With each taste, I tried to recognize the many sweet, spicy, smoky, nutty, and fruity ingredients within the complex and multi-layered flavors of our mole negro. Sensing the savory and chocolatey essence give way to the pleasing bite of the piquant spices, I now have a first-hand appreciation for the preparation and taste of the most famous and complex dish in the “Land of the Seven Moles”.