Nuns and Napoleon: The history of Mexico’s ‘mole’ dish
We trace mole’s complicated evolution from medieval Moors to the invention of the blender, and from something that had been considered peasant food to a special occasion showstopper.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is an excuse for margarita-fueled partying. But in Mexico, that date—the anniversary of a military triumph over Napoleon on May 5, 1862—is marked by a parade and not much else. The real celebrations happen on September 16, which is Mexican Independence Day.
At Gastropod, we’re always down to party, so here’s to Mexico’s true national holiday—and its true national dish: mole! But what is mole?
Rachel Laudan is a food historian and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History—but, when she started researching mole, the first document she uncovered was hardly deep in the archives. When she first visited Mexico in the 1990s, Laudan went to a restaurant famous for its mole. “And, of course, they had the statutory place mat with the story of mole poblano being invented in a convent in the eighteenth century,” she told us.
According to the origin story on the place mat, some nuns, in a panic because an archbishop was visiting and they had nothing to serve him, threw a bunch of spices in a pot and somehow came up with the perfect rich, chocolate-brown sauce. “That, to me, just sounds like propaganda,” said Fernando Lopez, one of three siblings whose father founded Guelaguetza, an Angeleno restaurant that is a temple to Oaxacan mole. He believes mole is far too complex to have been created overnight. Plus, mole comes in many varieties and colors. Guelaguetza serves six kinds of mole—mole negro, mole rojo, mole coloradito, mole amarillo, mole verde, and mole estofado—but Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez, associate professor of Latin American history at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, told us that she could name ten versions off the top of her head, and that each town in the south of Mexico will have its own variation on the classic recipes.
So where does this delicious and extremely labor-intensive sauce come from? This episode, with the help of chef Iliana de la Vega, Rachel Laudan, Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez, and the Lopez siblings, we trace the varied elements that make up mole: the indigenous tradition of hand-ground sauces, the Old World ingredients and Baroque aesthetic, the surprising Islamic influence, and, yes, the nuns. And we tell the story of how mole was elevated from its humble, southern origins to become a sophisticated sauce that doubles as Mexico’s national dish. Plus, we’ve got the expert verdict on jarred mole pastes, for those of you who can’t face spending two to three days roasting and grinding nuts, chiles, and spices. Listen in now for a deep dive—literally, someone falls into a bucket of the stuff—into the mysteries of mole.
Guelaguetza’s website is ilovemole.com, and the restaurant in LA’s Koreatown is known for its delicious mole, as well as other Oaxacan specialties. We spoke to three of the four Lopez siblings—Bricia, Paulina, and Fernando Jr.—who run it today. You can buy mole paste from their online store (they have three varieties: rojo, negro, and coloradito) and order their new cookbook here.
ILIANA DE LA VEGA AND EL NARANJO
Chef Iliana de la Vega grew up in Mexico City, but her mother was from Oaxaca, and when she opened her first restaurant, El Naranjo, it was in Oaxaca. So many people asked for her mole recipe that she ended up opening a cooking school there, too. In 2006, she moved to Austin, Texas, and re-opened El Naranjo there; this year, she was a semi-finalist in the James Beard Awards for best chef in the Southwest.
Rachel Laudan is a food historian whose most recent book, Cuisine and Empire, won Best Book in Culinary History from the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award in 2014. Her blog is required reading.
Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez is assistant professor of history at Moravian College, and author of the recent article, “Mole and mestizaje: race and national identity in twentieth-century Mexico.”