The Land of Seven Moles

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.

Class chef and chickens

Chef Alfonso checking out chickens at Abastos Market

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.

Spice vendor

Mole Ingredients on sale at Mercado Benito Juárez, Oaxaca

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.

Class Mole ingredients

The 20 Pieces of our Mole Puzzle

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.

Class Joe making mole

Me and My Mole

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.

Class Cacao Prep

Traditional Oaxacan Hot Chocolate

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.

Class Mescal

Homemade Mescal, contained in used tequila bottles

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.

Class Guacamole

Grasshoppers and Guacamole

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.

Class Mole plate

The Final Product, Mole Negro

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.

Class Group at table

Enjoying the fruits of our labor

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”.

Mole pastes

Mole Paste. When you don’t have time to make it yourself.

13 thoughts on “The Land of Seven Moles

  1. The mole sounds good (although I’ve never tried it), but I have to admit I don’t think I could have worked up the nerve to try the grasshoppers. I’m not nearly as good at trying new foods as I ought to be! The cooking class must have a been so fun..what a way to learn about the food of another culture!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ann, mole is a very tasty sauce over chicken and rice. At home, they sell the paste in jars under the Doña Maria brand. All you do is thin it out with chicken broth and warm it up. It is quite bland compared to the real Oaxacan mole negro that we made, but still worth a try sometime. I have never seen grasshoppers at home, but would love to find them to bring to our next family party. At first, I was afraid that they might squirt guts into my mouth when I bit into them, but they are completely dry, and taste kind of like a chili lime tortilla chip.

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      • That squirting guts thing is exactly what I was afraid of! I guess because it happens whenever we swat an an insect. If they are dry, then perhaps I could manage it. Meanwhile, I will look for the mole paste and give it a try. Thanks!

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  2. Good for you for diving in and making your own mole! We didn’t take a cooking class when we were in Oaxaca, but I think we’ll go for it next time… even if only to get one of those cool chefs hats. How did you find Alfonso? I ate chapulines a couple of times, but couldn’t get myself to grab a big handful like the people who grew up eating them do.

    Btw, have you visited one of Oaxaca’s amazing cemeteries yet?

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    • Janis, Good for you for trying chapulines. A pinch of them was just the right amount. I’m not sure that I could take a handful either. I found Alfonso on Tripadvisor under his company name “Que Rico Es Oaxaca”. I just wrote a review on TA with more details and specifics. The class lasted about 6 hours, cost 1,200 pesos (about US$60), and was a fun cultural and gastronomic experience. Alfonso’s mother makes the aprons and headware, and sells them if interested. I did not plan on visiting a cemetery while here in Oaxaca, but would love to do so, if you have a recommendation.

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  3. I’ve never been much on bugs Joe, but now mole is another story. When we returned from Oaxaca we sneaked three softball-size chunks of mole concentrate through customs and had a mole party at home. The best we had on our recent trip was in Palenque. As you know, making it from scratch is a labor of love and the stuff in the market is fine for me. ~ James

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    • James, I think the bugs are a good shock factor, but not all that weird or nutritious. I applaud your nerve smuggling your mole paste home. I wish we could buy that homemade mole back home. Three softballs would make for quite a party. Cheers!


    • The food in Mexico is very enjoyable, Gilda. What I did not expect was all of the regional variation in the foods and beverages. Since much of the preparations rely on local ingredients, sampling the foods has been both delicious and interesting. Because Oaxaca has so many geographical barriers to trade (e.g., dense jungle, deep valleys, and interlaced mountain terrains), the diversity of foods and culture is extreme in this part of Mexico.

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