In the past, I think Mexican food has had a bit of a bad rap in the UK. It has a bit of a reputation for being rather brown and stodgy. For many Brits, the closest they come to Mexican food is chilli con carne, fajitas (neither of which are traditional Mexican dishes) or (God forbid) a packet of Doritos with one of those insipid long life salsas.
Anyone who has dipped a crisp tortilla segment into a bowl of grassy guacamole or has eaten tangy ceviche knows that Mexican food can be light and refreshing. Granted the appearance of some dishes are less than aesthetically pleasing (refried beans for example) but, however it looks, bland is one thing it is not.
During my late teens I was fortunate to spend a year as an exchange student in El Paso, Texas. While there my host family took me on a train trip through the Copper Canyon in Mexico. We spent a night in Chihuahua before our train departed and this was where I first ate mole. Beyond travelling to the USA and the odd day trip to France I had never set foot outside of the UK. I had eaten very mild curries but these could not prepare me for this dish. I was presented with chicken pieces coated in something that looked like it had been spewed from a Texan oilfield. The dark, almost black, glossy sauce had the appearance, scent and even a similar texture to melted chocolate. But it was spicy, savoury and brimming with heat. I can’t say I enjoyed it and it was years before I tried it again, this time at home in my own kitchen. All I can say is that I’m glad I did.
Like so many dishes ingrained in the culture of the country there are many theories behind where mole originated. The most popular is that it was invented by nuns in Puebla for a banquet being held in honour of a visiting bishop. I’m inclined to favour Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’s theory that the recipe was passed to the nuns by aristocratic native Indian girls who would have equated the bishop with their own high priest or emperor. Chocolate was highly revered in the Aztec culture and was reserved for those of noble or royal blood or the higher ranks of the clergy. The nuns embellished the recipe with cloves and cinnamon to make the dish which is so renowned today.
The recipe requires several different types of dried chillies. These are essential to making a mole and give it a wonderfully smokey flavour. There are no substitutes. I buy them from mexgrocer.co.uk. I also used unsweetened chocolate which I bought from Waitrose. I have tried the Mole Poblano recipes by both Ortiz and Lourdes Nichols (who provide comprehensive guides to Mexican cooking) both of which call for the turkey or chicken to be boiled before hand. Although this may the traditional way of making mole (frying did not exist in the Aztec-Maya cuisines) I have found it renders the meat dry. To avoid this I have marinated the chicken in a spice blend then roasted it and made the sauce separately. It can be served with rice, beans or tamales and of course the ubiquitous guacamole (check out this recipe for inspiration).
Chef Thomasina Miers has done wonders to raise the profile of Mexican cooking in this country through her Wahaca chain of restaurants and her books. There also a number of exciting street food vendors popping up (such as Daddy Donkey) serving good quality Mexican food. So hopefully Mexican food will soon be regarded with the same respect commanded by asian cuisines.
There must be something about mole which brings memories flooding back. Have a look at Margo’s recipe at SaucyCooks.com to what it conjure up for her!
Chicken supreme with a mole style sauce
Ingredients for the chicken
- 4 x chicken supremes, skin on
- 5cm pc cinnamon stick
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 4 cloves
- 2 x fresh red chillies
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano or 2 tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 6 tbsp vegetable oil
Method for the chicken
- Gently roast the cinnamon stick, coriander seeds and cloves in dry frying pan until fragrant. Place in a coffee grinder and grind to a powder.
- Add the garlic, chillies, oregano, salt and vinegar. Grind to a fine paste. Place in a large bowl and stir in 4 tbsp vegetable oil.
- Put the chicken in the bowl and massage in the marinade. Cover and place in the fridge for a minimum of 6 hours or preferably overnight to allow the flavours to develop.
- To cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 200°C. Pour 2 tbsp vegetable oil in a roasting tin large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Place in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes before adding the chicken. Roast skin side up for 30 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
Ingredients for the mole style sauce
- 1 dried chilpotle chilli
- 2 dried pasilla chillies
- 2 dried mulato chillies
- 1 dried ancho chilli
- 250 – 500ml hot chicken stock
- 3 peppercorns
- 6 cloves
- ¼ tsp aniseed
- 5cm pc cinnamon stick
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 x garlic cloves, chopped
- 100g unsalted peanuts or blanched almonds
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
- 50g raisins
- 230g tin chopped tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 25g dark chocolate (unsweetened if possible or minimum of 70% cocoa solids)
Method for the sauce
- Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Dry roast the chillies until fragrant. It will be hard to see if they are colouring because they are very dark so turn them frequently (this process should only take a few minutes). If you see smoke you’ve burnt them!
- Allow to cool slightly then remove the seeds and the stalks. These chillies may look innocuous in their dried state but they still pack a punch even without most of their seeds. You will not be able to get rid of all the seeds but if you should want a really fiery mole leave the chillies whole (cut off the stalks though). Soak the chillies in 250ml chicken stock for 30 minutes.
- Put the peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and aniseed into a coffee grinder and grind to a fine powder.
- Put the chillies and their soaking liquid in a food process and blend for a few moments. Add the ground spices and the remaining ingredients except the chocolate and vegetable oil. Blend again until you have a coarse paste.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the mole paste and about 100ml of chicken stock. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down low so that bubbles occasionally plop on the the surface. Cook for 30 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid the mixture sticking to the pan. The mole sauce should be the consistency of think porridge. Add more chicken stock if you think the sauce is too thick.