SAN PEDRO ATOCPAN, Mexico — Few dishes central to Mexican cuisine are as little-known outside the country as mole, the thick, dark sauce redolent of chocolate, anise, chili peppers, sesame and a myriad of other complex flavors.
That’s because mole is as difficult to make as it is delicious. It can take days to hunt down, prepare, grind, brown and mash the ingredients.
Mole (pronounced MOE-lay) dates to Aztec times, and its many variants commonly are served in Mexico on special occasions.
“We eat moles at festivals, weddings, birthday parties, even at wakes,” said Gabriel Sanchez de la Cruz, a spokesman for this mountain town a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Mexico City, where a national mole festival is being held.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to San Pedro Atocpan each October to dip into an endless variety of dishes made with the sauce, which holds an honored spot in the national cuisine. The town claims to make 60 percent of the processed mole sold in Mexico.
One survey found that 99 percent of Mexicans have tried mole or regularly eat it in dishes such as mole poblano atop chicken, enchiladas with mole or mole on chilacayote, a type of squash. Different varieties of mole are flavored with almonds, pine nuts or mashed fruit.
Mole’s texture is thick and slightly oily. Think heavy barbecue sauce. Ground peanuts and sesame seeds — as well as the optional lard — give the sauce its heaviness. The flavor is peppery, nutty, earthy, cocoa-y and smoky all at once, with elements of fruitiness tossed in. It can be as hard to describe as good varieties of wine.
Bite by bite, mole sauces are making headway in the United States. For a formal state dinner at the White House in May, President Barack Obama invited a guest chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, who put a Oaxacan black mole on the menu. It was a brave move. The guest of honor was President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.
“I chose the black mole because it is one of the most complex moles flavor-wise and one of the most difficult to make. It took me over 20 years to get it right,” Bayless said.
Bayless’ version of mole has 26 ingredients. Other recipes call for more than 30, providing an overlay of gastronomically complex flavors.
The word “mole” is derived from the Nahuatl word “mulli” or “molli,” for sauce or concoction. It’s commonly prepared with four types of dried chilies — mulato, pasilla, chipotle and ancho — which must be seeded and ground into powder.
Over the decades, mole makers took some of the pungent bite from the chilies by throwing in unsweetened chocolate, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and different types of fruit, such as ground raisins and fried banana, specifically a type known as a platano macho.
“The banana is used so that it’s not too spicy,” Evillano said.
Still, the complex aroma of mole is such that security officials at Mexico City’s international airport told the Reforma newspaper earlier this year that passengers carrying mole were triggering bomb-detecting equipment. They asked passengers to declare if they toted mole sauce or paste to avoid unpleasant delays.