You probably know mole. And you likely know Oaxaca. But did you know that seven moles come from Oaxaca?
There are hundreds of types of moles from across Mexico, but Oaxaca is often associated with it because the southern Mexican state has become known for seven moles in particular. Each distinct in color and flavor, it’s worth searching all seven moles out when you travel to Oaxaca. From market stalls to high-end restaurants, you’re sure to come across them if you stay in Oaxaca long enough.
Whether you join one of our group trips or travel there on your own, here is everything you need to know about mole for your next trip to Mexico:
First Off, What Is Mole?
Let’s start by getting a working definition of mole, shall we?
Borrowing word association a la high school exams, you could say that mole is to Mexico as curry is to Thailand. Like curry, mole is a complex, multi-ingredient, layered sauce that comes in many flavors and forms and is a hallmark of the local cuisine.
Though each type of mole is distinct, they are all made with a combination of chiles, herbs, and a thickener like masa (corn flour), bread, nuts, or seeds.
It’s believed the word mole comes from the Nahuatl (aka the Aztec language) word “mulli,” which means sauce or concoction. As such, it’d be logical to conclude that it must then be as old as the pre-Hispanic Nahuatl language, but the history is a bit of a mystery.
Then Where Is Mole Originally From?
There is a debate between Puebla and Oaxaca as to where mole is originally from, and that’s because two long-standing legends surround the creation of mole.
The first mole legend takes place in what is known as present-day Puebla state and dates to the 1500s. It’s believed the nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa were given a last-minute warning that the Archbishop was visiting, and they had nothing to cook. Their solution was to make a sauce of the approximately 30 ingredients — spices, nuts, and bread — they did have in their pantry, and from it was born mole.
Another story claims that mole dates back to the pre-Hispanic era when the Aztec king, Moctezuma, held a banquet for the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortez and they served a sauce resembling mole.
Rather than jump into that losing argument, we’d just as soon focus on the fact we’re happy mole was created in the first place!
How Do You Make Mole?
These days there are two significant forms of mole out there – a smoother version made with modern blenders or food processors and the more roughly-texture one made the traditional way in a molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle).
Regardless of how the mole is ground up, the process to make it is essentially the same — that’s to say, seeds, chiles, and herbs (and sometimes cookies, bread, and chocolate) are toasted and ground, then all simmered together. If you make mole by hand in a molcajete, it can take well over an hour to make the initial sauce – to say nothing of then cooking the final dish you want to serve.
What Do You Serve Mole With?
The thing to keep in mind about mole is that the dish is way more about the sauce than the protein or other food that the sauce is served over. The thinking is that the sauce should have the spotlight so the food that comes sauced – often poultry or beef – should work more as a vehicle for eating the sauce than the other way around.
What Are The Seven Moles From Oaxaca?
Here’s a bit about mole and the seven types of mole to eat when you travel to Oaxaca:
The most famous mole is the sweet-savory, smoky, ink-black sauce known as mole negro or black mole. Many think it’s black because of the addition of chocolate, but that’s not quite the whole story. The reality is that this mole is made with just a touch of chocolate, and it’s thanks to the charred seeds of the chilhuacle negro that give this mole sauce its signature depth of both color and flavor.
Though this is the most common mole to come across when visiting Oaxaca, the reality is that it is widely considered the most complex and labor-intensive mole to make since it has more than thirty ingredients used.
There is an assortment of reddish-colored moles, but only one style is known simply as Rojo or red mole. Made with guajillo chiles, sesame seeds, and a touch of chocolate, it is the more refined version of the sauce we call “enchilada sauce” in the United States.
In a category of bold sauces, mole Coloradito may be the most intensely flavored. Made with ancho, pasilla, and cascabel chiles in addition to black pepper, raisins, and cinnamon, this mole has a lingering heat and a warmth that makes it one of our favorites for cold weather months.
The distinctive color of this yellow mole comes from the use of chilhuacle Amarillo chiles. Though this savory mole is considered yellow, it tends to look still quite red once it’s prepared. It is made with tomatillos, cumin, clove, cilantro, and either hierba Santa when served with fish or pitiona (a Mexican variety of lemon verbena) when served with beef.
Mole Verde (aka Mole Pipian)
We don’t like to play favorites, but we adore mole Verde. Almost like a more mature, complex version of tomatillo salsa, this mole is one of the easiest moles to make and is made by grinding together a combination of tomatillos, cilantro, chiles, epazote (a pungent herb native to Mexico and Central America), hierba Santa, and pumpkin seeds. Often thickened with some nuts (usually walnuts or almonds) and some masa (corn dough), it’s commonly served over chicken.
While most of the seven moles are known simply by their color, this brick-red mole is known instead as “manchamantales,” which translates to “tablecloth stainer” because it’s that dark of a colored mole. It has a woody, earthy flavor and is often served with sweet tropical fruit.
Of all the famous seven moles, mole chichilo (aka chichilo negro) is the rarest to come across when traveling to Oaxaca. This mole is also the richest sauce of the bunch as it’s more like a hybrid of a bone broth and a mole. Made with chilhuacle negro, mulato, pasilla chiles, and anise-y avocado leaves, the seven moles are the least sweet and most savory.
Now that you know the seven moles of Oaxaca, try them in real life on one of our upcoming group trips to Mexico!
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Photo Credit: photos by Kristen Kellogg