Cuisine — Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a dream come true for lovers of Méxican food, its cuisine considered the finest in the country among aficionados of Méxican cooking. With many of the familiar elements of other regional Méxican food, Oaxacan cuisine can be thought of as an extension of this already deep culinary tradition.
The landscape of Oaxaca is diverse, ranging across high, heavily forested sierras, temperate highland valleys, and hundreds of kilometers of desolate, semi-tropical coast, creating three distinct climatic regions and numerous microclimates, making it, the land, especially suitable for supporting a large variety of crops and livestock.
Before the Spanish first arrived, the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, like the rest of Mesoamerica, subsisted on a simple but healthy diet of maize, beans, squash, and chili, although elaborate puréed sauces, known by the Nahuatl, or Aztec, name molli, a forerunner of the moles, were a staple as well. After arriving, the Spanish brought with them many non-native spices, vegetables, grains, and livestock from Europe and other places in the world. Many of these imported crops and livestock were integrated into the habitats best suited for their cultivation and grazing, while many others were not, the land overfarmed and overgrazed, leaving the soil denuded.
Early on, all this produce, only a day or two's transport from the city of Oaxaca and the smaller regional hubs in the valleys, made its way to the markets. With such a wide variety of produce easily available, cooks naturally began to experiment with it, building on the old with the new, their recipes evolving over the centuries into the rich and spicy cusine of today.
The Seven Moles
Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles. In reality, there are dozens, the seven moles more like seven broad categories into which numerous variations are poured. Other than labeling moles as sauces, no single description can capture their variety, their consistencies ranging from thick and pasty to light and soupy, their flavors from slightly sweet to muy picante. Moreover, except for chiles, and sometimes elaborate combinations of them, which are usually dried and ground, moles do not a have a common set of ingredients, although most do have a large number of ingredients.
Ground seeds or nuts or both are the primary thickening agents, though dried, ground chiles themselves have a thickening effect. What's more, some recipes forgo ground seeds or nuts altogether and call for masa, corn tortillas, or bread as their thickening agents.
Most moles begin with pastes, usually mixes of nuts, seeds, chiles, and other spices. In pre-mechanized times, creating the pastes could be a complicated and arduous task, especially for the more elaborate mixes, involving pounding and grounding the ingredients together in a stone mortar. Today, mercifully, cooks can have their preferred mixes ground up in mill shops, or molinas, which are usually near the markets. Most cooks, however, just buy the high-quality, freshly ground pastes that are sold in the markets.
And now, here are the seven classic moles, in no particular order:
There are a seemingly infinite number of variations of Mole Amarillo, ranging in consistency from thin to thick, the thinner versions usually the bases for soups and braised meat dishes, the thicker versions fillings. Common ingredients include tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, cloves, peppercorns, masa as a thickening agent, and some combination of ancho, chilcostle, costeño amarillo, or guajillo chiles. Rarely is this mole ever yellow, usually running some light shade of orange, depending on the ingredients used.
On the thick and rich side of the seven moles spectrum, Coloradito is normally served over beef, though other meats, such as chicken, turkey, and pork are not unheard of. Some common ingredients include sesame seeds, almonds, chocolate, raisins, canela, plantains, tomatoes, onions, Méxican oregano, thyme, peppercorns, cloves, and ancho and guajillo chiles.
With relatively few ingredients, Mole Rojo tends to be on the lighter and simpler side, making it a great sauce for pouring over enchiladas, as well as chicken and pork dishes. Ingredients often include tomatoes, canela, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, Méxican oregano, thyme, raisins for a hint of sweetness, Pan de Yema to thicken slightly, and ancho or pasilla chiles to spice things up.
By far the best known of the seven classic moles, Negro is a popular filling for tamales or slathering for enchiladas, Some cooks achieve its signature black coloring by roasting the seeds of the chiles until they are burnt, while others simply add black chilhuacle chiles. Common ingredients include onions, garlic, tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, thyme, Mexican oregano, cloves, hoja santa leaves, canela, nutmeg, ginger, raisins, prunes, sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, chocolate, and ancho, guajillo, or chilhuacle negro chiles.
The lightest and least picante of the seven moles, Verde relies on a mix of fresh herbs instead of strong spices and chiles for its distinctive flavoring, delicious when poured over chicken or pork. Commonly used fresh herbs include epazote, hoja santa leaves, thyme, marjoram, and parsley, along with just enough jalapeños for a hint of spiciness and some maza for consistency.
One of the richer of the moles, Chichilo is infused with masa — masa as a thickening agent; masa balls, or chochoyotes, to add substance; and burnt corn tortillas, which are made from masa, for flavoring. Other common ingredients include onions, cloves, peppercorns, Mexican oregano, avocado leaves, beef and pork cubes, and some combination of guajillo, chilhuacle rojo, or ancho chiles.
Manchamantel, which translates to tablecloth stain, is by far the fruitiest of the seven moles, usually served with pork ribs and chicken. Common ingredients include fresh pineapple, apples, canela, tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, Méxican oregano, thyme, cloves, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and a generous helping of ancho and guajillo chiles.