If the Mexican people are born of corn then Oaxacan’s must bleed mole. Black, red, yellow, green, almond or tablecloth-stainer, a mole is not a sauce for sissies. Perhaps you have been told that all sauces are derived from the five mother sauces. Hogwash! A mole is nothing like the “big five”. Frenchman can hide their blunders with butter, heavy cream and wine but a mole offers no such refuge. Moles are made using the gnarly bits; the roots, barks and dried stuffs. They boil, spatter and stick to you like napalm. In unskilled hands mole is an embarrassing charcoal mud, but done well, mole is a culinary time machine. You taste the clay pot and wooden spoon as much as you do the onions and the chocolate.
I’ve been in Oaxaca City for a week, tasting moles. I’ve had a few great ones, the table-cloth stainer (Mancha-mantiles) and the black (Mole Oaxaceno). I’ve also had some shameful ones. In a roadside buffet north of town I tasted at least six of the seven moles and each was worse than the last. The one mole I haven’t seen however is the yellow. Yellow mole is differentiated by a rare chile called the Chilhuacle amarrilo. It’s siblings, Chilhuacle Rojo (red) and Negro (black) are more popular and fetch a higher price at the market which is why people don’t grow the yellow chile as much. It is often made into a stew with chicken, green beans, potatoes and chayote. If you search for Yellow mole on the internet in English you will scarcely the chile mentioned. Search in Spanish and it’s the first ingredient in every recipe.
Oaxaca has delicious mornings. The mountains keep a blanket of clouds over the city until late morning. The city is bigger than I expected and I’m far from the cobblestone and adobe tourist area in a part of town known as “near the Wal-Mart”. The steep walk from my room is a foot-slapping downhill march but I try to keep the noise down. It’s eerily quiet at 9 AM and I wonder each morning where all the people are. Either this city is still asleep or everyone has conspired to keep the noise down for fear of waking the mountains.
Perhaps it’s the thick brick walls that keep the noise in. Inside the house of my host, Evelia Castillos, Oaxaca is wide awake and has been for some time. Evelia greets me at the door with a slight roll of the eyes, “What’s one more?” she grins. The place is a buzz of activity. It’s hard to keep straight who is who as I’m formally introduced to each person. Evelia runs a take-out business in a street-side nook of her home. She sells authentic Oaxacan food to the locals on a regular schedule; almond mole is on Mondays, Chile Relleno is on Saturday and so on. There are no waiters or busboys to wrangle and the store closes at one, pretty sweet lifestyle. The teachers have been on strike for about two weeks now so Evelia’s house in addition to being a commercial kitchen and cooking school is now a day-care center as well. She handles everything with grandma’s smile and a list of chores. The house is centered around an open air foyer. Evelia has pop-up tables covered in bright oil-cloth and bowls of raw ingredients artfully arranged. There are two portable propane burners set up with cazuelas (earthenware pots) and a wooden mozaic of spoons and dried peppers hanging on the wall.
Evelia’s enthusiasm for traditional foods is contagious. Both of her children have caught the bug. Her son Rodolfo is chef at the highly acclaimed Origin in the swanky part of town and her daughter who is a chef is in town planning her wedding to an Austrian chef where they run an upscale Mexican restaurant. It’s a family affair. She is calm center of this universe. She stops what she is doing frequently to answer questions from the staff or goose one of the children running around. The smile never leaves her lips.
Evelia directs my attention to the cilhuactle amarillo chile. This is what makes the yellow mole yellow mole. They are smaller than a guajillo with a lot of tang.
Yellow mole is usually reserved for special occasions but my host is too polite to mention that. We are going to be making tamales as well, the Oaxacan way, meaning stuffed with mole. The recipes for the tamale and the mole are actually quite simple. There’s not a lot of chile roasting or peeling, nothing complicated. Blend, strain and cook. The magic is in knowing the proportions. We are making two batches of this mole. One is thinner, for the stew, the other is thickened with masa and used to flavor tamales. We started on the tamale masa, melting the lard and hydrating the thick dry corn flour. Simplicity is the name of the game: masa, lard, chicken stock, salt and baking powder. Masa should come out light and fluffy and very well mixed. It’s a bicept builder. I was struck by Evelias way of making the banana leaf tamales. She spread the masa thinly all the way to the edge of the large banana leaf and then folded it in on itself. The result was crepe like layers of tamale that unfolded as you opened your package. The whole time we were outside making tamales, the staff was inside putting together the take-out meals of the day: Chile Rellenos stuffed with Chicken Picadillo, which they
were battering in whipped egg-whites before frying; ready to be sold with various sauces, beans and rice. We worked the masa into a large pot-full of tamales, some with the yellow mole and some with black mole made the day before, some in corn-husk others in banana leaf. After we put them to steam Evelia gave me a tour of the house and the store-front. The whole house seemed poised for family gatherings with several matching tableware collections and full kitchen with a satellite. So that’s one business kitchen, one and a half home kitchens and a pop-up outdoor kitchen. A home with three and a half kitchens rears some pretty serious cooks.