Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mole and More

There was some question whether we would make Oaxaca our destination on this trip. Last year protests by local teachers turned into clashes with riot police, leaving some teachers in prison and raising calls for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor. This year the teachers have focused their grievances around the Guelaguetza, an ancient dance festival honoring the corn goddess that draws thousands of spectators. Fierce pride in the local culture packs the local auditorium where the dancing takes place.

Although there have been some sporadic demonstrations and marches by the protesting teachers, dancing and vacations continue. I have aimed my own daily activities at discovering the ultimate mole, considered by some to be the apogee of Mexican cuisine and a specialty here in Oaxaca.

Mexico´s is a cuisine unlike most in the west. It developed without dairy products products and largely without meat. Those items did not arrive on the scene until the Spanish brought cows and pigs in the 16th Century. The Mexicans, meanwhile, had taken food to an art form with chili peppers, corn, squash, chocolate, seeds, avocados. What we call mole is a mix of dried chilies, seeds and sometimes nuts and chocolate turned into a sauce with water or chicken broth.

Home cooks in Mexico who still bother to make their own mole create their own favorite mixes of chilies, seeds and other ingredients take it to the local grinder, who turns it into a paste, saving lots of hand-grinding. Otherwise the markets are full of vendors who sell the different varieties of mole in huge plastic basins. Here in Oaxaca, mole is selling for about $2 per pound, which seems an absurdly low price to American who is deprived of real mole most of the time. But remember, this is Mexico, where chili peppers also are displayed in the markets in great heaps, in dozens of different varieties.

My first mole here was a red mole, or mole ¨rojo,¨ that was thick, complex and delicious. But chocolate also being a specialty of Oaxaca, I´ve gravitated toward the black mole, or mole ¨negro,¨ made with dark chilies and chocolate. Typically is is served as a sauce over a piece of chicken breast, garnished with sesame seeds. But an ultimate version has been elusive. My guess is that restaurants don´t bother making their own moles, but rather purchase it in bulk and then tweak it in the kitchen. The best black mole I have found so far was not in the city of Oaxaca at all, but in a cafe in a small town outside the city where we were investigating the local rug weaving craft.

Chocolate also is everywhere. Here the beans are on display in huge burlap bags and there are numerous shops where the locals line up and order their own preferred blends, chocolate with cinnamon or vanilla or almonds being typical. The ingredients are placed in large grinders and the final product sold in plastic bags. There are stalls in the markets devoted exclusively to chocolate in all its guises, the vendors handing out tiny plastic spoons containing samples. If you stop for any length of time, you are soon besieged with every variety of chocolate. Finally your defenses evaporate and you are buying a pound to take home.

Being a non-coffee drinker, chocolate has been a bright spot for me. I am drinking it every morning for breakfast. We´ve become partial to the breakfast buffet at the Mayordomo restaurant where the waiter brings steaming chocolate to the table in the traditional large green pitcher, then stirs it vigorously with the same chocolate stirrer that has been in use in Mexico for centuries. The cup fills with a foamy head, usually with a taste of cinnamon to go with our morning plate of chilaquiles.

Next, the market fondas....

1 comment:

Jane said...

Ed, did you see this about the fairness in farm and food policy amendment to the Farm Bill?