Mexico's moles are a mixed bunch. The name comes from the Nahuatl word for sauce. The diagnostic ingredient is dried chilli peppers prepared as a dipping sauce in a careful blend of varieties - ancho, pasilla, mulato and chipotle are usual. The recipe's not set in stone. While chillis are essential, chocolate is optional (and only if you want your mole really dark). As the composition became formalised, certain recipes - post-Columbian-Exchange combinations of Old and New World ingredients - were attributed to certain places. Oaxaca claims seven varieties - red, yellow, green - of which the most famous, mole negro, black sauce, traditionally served with turkey, was said to have been invented by the nuns of the convent of Santa Clara to please a visiting Bishop.
Mole poblano, the version associated with the elegant post-colonial town of Puebla, is the one I learned to prepare when I lived for a year or two in Mexico in the early 1960's. My stepfather, a career diplomat on the Latin American circuit, was no. 2 to the British ambassador in Mexico City, and my mother's cook was from the Puebla region. My early education had been in Montevideo, and at just turned 18 and fluent in Spanish (though lacking Nahuatl), I applied for a secretarial job at the embassy. I quickly discovered that my boss, the Cultural Attaché, was fully occupied sending coded dispatches to MI6 about the Russians in Cuba, and saw no reason to scramble around in the jungle on the river Uxumacintla on the Guatemalan border, where most of the archeological digs were under way. Happily for my gastronomic education, I fell into the habit of accepting, as my boss's deputy, official invitation to join cultural expeditions with the newly established Sociedad Indigenista searching for artefacts - Mayan, Aztec, Olmec - among buried temples in the jungles of Chiapas and Yucatan.
Traveling with the archeologists gave me a chance, when overnighting in remote villages, to appreciate the cooking of the local non-hispanic population. Old World condiments - salt and sugar - were not available in the Americas until imported by Europeans, making chilli, both dried and fresh, the all-important seasoning that adds flavour (and vitamins) to a diet based on Mexico’s indigenous staples, maize (usually in the form of nixtamalized pre-cooked flour, masa harina) and beans, Phaseolus vulgaris. Indigenous herbs, tubors, fungi, roots, fruit and greens were/are all available year round, fish from rivers and lakes was (still is) air-dried without salt for storage. Meat from the wild such as turkey (bony and tough) and iguana (bony and stringy) - was reserved for celebrations. Forest-forage included ant-eggs, crickets, bee-grubs eaten straight from the comb, and a species of tadpole that never turns into a frog.
Laura Esquivel's quick mole sauce
1 can of plum tomatoes, 1/2 chopped onion, 1 peeled garlic clove, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 1 tablespoon blanched almonds, 1 tablespoon raisins, 1 heaped tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon powdered chilli (or 2 de-seeded fresh chillies), a pinch of powdered clove, pinch of fennel seeds, pinch of powdered cinnamon, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, salt and pepper. Put everything in the liquidiser and process thoroughly. In a little oil in a frying-pan, simmer-fry gently until the sauce is rich and thick - about 20 minutes. Further and better particulars in Like Water for Hot Chocolate.
All the capsicums (fiery, mild and everything in between) are descended from the same pair of ancestors, Capsicum annuum and C. frutescens. C. annuum, a native of Mexico, is, as its name suggests, a bushy annual whose fleshy, lantern-shaped fruits hang down like Christmas baubles. C. frutescens, a Peruvian native, is a perennial shrub with torpedo-shaped, upward-pointing thin-fleshed fruits. Both are fiery in their original state, though Peruvian is hotter than Mexican. The two species are inextricably entangled through hybridisation, deliberate or accidental, since the earliest times, a process that continued throughout the Old World after imports arrived from land of origin. All the capsicums mature from green to yellow or varying shades of red to almost black. In the kitchen, they can be divided into flavouring-chillis (fresh or pickled); frying-chillis (including pimientos de padron and salad-peppers); drying-chilis (chilli-flakes, chilli-powder, paprika, pimenton et al).
I suspect that mole negro has a much earlier history than the nuns of Puebla claim. I have made it numerous times, from recipes entitled alternately Mole Poblano or Mole Negro de Oaxaca, and there is no substantial difference. Interesting that you would publish this today, as just two nights ago I made chicken in mole negro, the sauce based on a packet of mole paste that was branded by Guelaguetza, which is an award-winning Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles, which I try to visit whenever I am there. The paste was blended with tomato puree and chicken stock and briefly cooked together--easy peasy, and delicious, albeit a bit sweeter than when I make it from scratch. A friend of mine who lived in Mexico City for many years told me that middle class cooks in Mexico all use mole paste, due to how labor intensive it is to make from scratch and their lack of household servants. The shortcut recipe you posted, lacking plantain, burned tortilla, sesame seeds, broth, likely wouldn't compare well with a mole negro made with reconstituted, high-quality Oaxacan mole paste. A possibly interesting postscript related to the Olmec culture: when I was a clinical social worker in an orthopedic rehab in Upper NW DC, I encountered an elderly woman with a fascinating past. Her first husband had been Matthew Sterling, the anthropologist who was supposedly the model for Harrison Ford's character in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Sterling was the one who first re-discovered the Olmec heads, and she had gone with him on two or three different expeditions to the jungle, that were sponsored by The National Geographic Society. They brought along photographers and filmmakers to document the excavations, and when I expressed interest in learning more, she showed me old copies of National Geographic Magazine, with articles they had written, including photographs. She was posed, sitting on top of one or two of the heads to demonstrate scale. What a life!
Many thanks for yr comment, Zora - the whole subject of when and where and how the idea of mole came to be is fascinating. And I quite agree that as a preparation the idea of a pounded sauce prepared with dried chillis well predates the nuns' story. All those Old World ingredients, for a start, in the modern version. And chilli flakes are still offered as an alternative to sugar at the chopped-fruit stalls in DF. Which prompted me to look up Diana Kennedy (she was a friend my mother's in Mexico) to see if she gives mole recipes in 'Oaxaca al Gusto': she has loads, often listed as a sub-heading, as you might when separating main ingredients from an accompanying salsa. Mole zapoteco, for instance - a wedding dish, so luxurious - is a turkey or chicken stew for which the jointed bord is cooked in the mole (ingredients guajillo:ancho 2:1, garlic, allspice, cloves, cumin, Mexican marjoram, thyme and breadcrumbs.