Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mole Poblano

This week something a little more useful: the justly famous chile and chocolate mole of Puebla. National dishes often have back stories and folklore that cement them into the public consciousness, often they are certainly apocryphal but serve to give character regardless.

But first, for newcomers to Mexican food, what is a mole? Mole (pronounced mo-lay) is basically a sauce which can be loosely described as complex in flavour and thick in consistency (as apposed to a salsa, a sauce whose consistency is watery, un-thickened). The word mole means "concoction" more or less, as in our familiar friend guacamole, and is etymologically rooted in the Nahuatl word "mulli" or "milli". This word gives rise to our first legend of the origin of Mole Poblano: that our Nuhuatl speaking Moctezuma served mole to Cortez and his soldiers, thinking Cortez was the returned God Quetzalcoatl.

The second story similarly features a religious theme: an angel appeared to 16th century nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla as they roasted, ground and chopped an array of ingredients to create a meal for the impending arrival of the Archbishop. They served the chocolate sauce with turkey (another ingredient native to Mexico) and a national dish was born.

Other legends include cranky priests, chance gusts of wind and other factors that fail to explain the considered complexity of this sauce. Indeed, what this dish should achieve in its balance is an earthy bitterness from the chocolate and burnt tortillas, sweetness from the chiles and banana, a savoury base from onions and garlic and finish with just a suggestion of heat from the chile. The consistency of the sauce is ultimately quite thick and luxurious, with the strongly-flavoured ingredients becoming delicate and nuanced.

Though Mole poblano can often contain up to 35 ingredients, this domestically achievable version – one which retains the key flavours of the true Mole – is based a recipe from Alonso Hernández, Chef at the Meson Sacristia in Puebla.


1 Mulato chile
2 Pasilla chiles
2 Ancho chiles*

3 Roma tomato, halved
Half a white onion, peeled and quartered
1 clove of garlic, peeled

Half piece Ibarra (or mexican drinking chocolate), chopped
Quarter of a cup of demarara sugar
2 corn tortillas
3 cups water
1 banana (very ripe)
Half a teaspoon of salt

Vegetable oil, to shallow fry
Toasted sesame seeds, to serve


Split the dried chiles and remove the seeds and stem from each. Open and flatten the chiles, then gently fry them for around 5-8 seconds on each side, much in the same manner as you would fry a pappadum. This heat activates important flavour compounds that are lost in the dried chile. While the oil is still hot, peel and halve the banana lengthways and fry until golden brown. Reserve.

On a comal or skillet dry-roast the tomato, onion and garlic until soft. A slightly charred skin is desired. Place the toasted ingredients in a pot with the chiles and two cups of water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the chiles have softened (around 10 mins). Puree the pots contents in a blender, a little at a time, then strain the mixture through a sieve and reserve.

Place the tortillas directly over the flame and turn them frequently until they are completely charred. Blow out the likely burning tortilla (quick prayer to the rain gods to break the drought) and blend with 1 cup of water and the fried banana. Pass through a sieve and reserve.

Take a small amount of the vegetable oil and heat in a medium sized clay pot if you have it, otherwise stainless steel is fine. Introduce the tomato based sauce slowly and fry until boiling. Add the banana sauce and stir. Lower the heat and add chocolate, sugar and salt. Reduce for 25 mins, stirring to make sure it doesn't stick until the sauce has thickened and darkened considerably.

Mole Poblano is commonly served over poached chicken, but goes wonderfully with the sweetness of most any bird; turkey is a classic, and duck really brings something else to it. Garnish with sesame seeds, serve with a side of longrain rice and a stack of warm tortillas.

Notes on the recipe:
Those wanting to avoid too much sugar might try a second really ripe banana. Those lacking corn tortillas might try dark roasting some good bread if need be. Those lacking all three types of chile might try using two types but the same quantity, 5 in total. You cannot, however, use any other type of chile.

*Good dried chile can be hard to find in Australia, but you needn't look further than the lovely Marycarmen at Fireworks foods in Sydney. She has a great mail order service, and what her site lacks in modernity is made up for in great range, prices and service (her mobile phone number is listed on the site). Try her here

Another location worth trying might be The Essential Ingredient

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Week in Three Meals

Investigative culinarianism comes at a cost, sometimes to the detriment of health but more often than not it's chalked in dollar terms. In calculating our budget for Mexico, I realised that we could save AU$285 (that's around 560 tacos, no light matter) by braving a 20 hour trip that kept us in Fiji for a stopover en route to LA. Bleary-eyed in Nadi, we spent hours looking at huge packets of Twisties and all manner of things concocted from coconut, dreaming of our budget accommodation we'd booked at Los Angeles airport.

We emerged from LAX customs at 3pm local time, happily took a free shuttle to our cheap bed, and found ourselves located in a nutritional desert. An effort to find food that vaguely resembled the results of natural selection, I embarked on a frustrated three mile walk that came to naught. At the end of my reserves, I surrendered to a neon sign perched atop a deep-fryer, and left clutching a predictable Styrofoam container, a four piece "meal" from Pollo Loco. In an age of naming eateries after key ingredients, the people behind crazy chicken have shamed us all for creativity.

What can I say? Chances are I was looking at the remains of some poor bird who had lived a terrible and brief life in a feedlot, sustained on antibiotics until its death and injected with flavour solution afterwards. My own solution was similarly appalling: at three miles and half a world of flying behind me, my ethical and nutritional standards came to dust, and this dirty bird had my name on it. Four pieces of chicken thigh, a side of pinto beans, rice, a little stack of tortillas and sauces, and you can see why this awful food is endemic and threatening, with a total cost US$7.71 . And since the Pollo Loco nutritional guide informs me that this meal contains at least 860 calories (about 110 per dollar, taxes included), it was more than enough to make it to Guadalajara.

And so fourteen hours later, there we were. Jalisco's state capital has a reputation as the most Mexican of cities, the balanced and blended Mestizo and Spanish cultures reflected in architecture, people and of course food. Birria de chivo is Jalsico's most famous and ubiquitous dish, a spiced goat stew that can be prepared many ways but always features Chile de arbol and requires hours of gentle heat. The resulting feast is fall-apart, tender and moist, subtle in its balance of earthy notes, spice and goat, with delicate aromas and a clean finish (I know, it sounds more like a goat chardonnay). Birria is then served with chopped coriander, diced onion, tortillas, lime and a platter of house specialty salsa. We had it twice, the first plate an entirely forgettable concoction from the Mercardo Libertad, the second a sublime and accomplished example of tradition and quality at Birria las Nueve Esquinas, really the place to try this amazing dish.

On to the coast. That I have traveled thousands of kilometers to learn about, and eat local food is a somewhat confused point, of this I am well aware. Cooking local produce anywhere however, is an unconflicted joy (akin to being proficient on your own instrument, then getting the chance to play around on a new and exotic one just to see what sounds you can make). So to this end I was delighted to find a fish market at the little town of San Paucho, on the Jaliscan coast, selling Huachinango only hours from the catch. These small red fish are more or less Red Snapper and really wonderful when so fresh. I treated them in no extraordinary way, letting the freshness and quality speak louder than my interference. Scaled, scored on each side and trimmed down to fit in the pan, I salted them lightly then cooked each side through, crisping the skin only slightly. I then used the pan to make a quick salsa, as follows:

a good slug olive oil
quarter red onion, diced fine
small clove of garlic, finely sliced
2 small ripe roma tomato, diced
half a Jalepeno chile, seeds removed and diced
juice of 1 lime

Soften the onion in the pan with the oil, letting the flavours of the fish permeate. Add chile and garlic, saute gently. Add tomato, then cook a little further. Add a squeeze of lime and spoon over fish, serve with good bread or tortillas to mop up. Pretty good with a crisp sweet beer and a slight rosy sunburn. Provecho.

Sure it's simple, but the key to this salsa is tomato with a pronounced flavour of... tomato. Please, "Just Say No" to Woolworths, Safeway, and other such threats to our farming communities and our quality of food. Check your local Farmers Market when the real ones are in season. Better still, grow your own.

I'd better wrap it up, off to a tortilla factory...more next week.