OAXACA, MEXICO — Rojo, negro, verde. Practicing Spanish vocabulary? In Oaxaca you're ordering mole, Mexico's national dish.
The rich, spicy sauce known as mole was created in the city of Puebla in the 17th century. Nuns, so the story goes, wanted to make the perfect dish with ingredients from the Old World and the New to honor the archbishop.
Using various chiles, nuts, spices, even chocolate, the nuns created a sauce that is synonymous with Mexican cuisine and, like the country itself, a study in contrasts.
In Puebla's mole poblano, named for the predominant chili used, chocolate blends with chili, and peanuts and sesame seeds are finely ground and stirred into the thick "gravy," along with cinnamon and cumin. The tang of sweetness is offset by a lingering smoky spiciness.
Though mole originated in Puebla, it was fully developed in neighboring Oaxaca. Oaxaca has not just one, but seven moles.
This southeastern Mexican state and its capital of the same name, 350 miles from Mexico City, are home to 17 indigenous groups, each with its own language, customs, and culinary traditions.
The valleys, forests, and plateaus that compose the state of Oaxaca produce spices, herbs, dozens of chilies, and chocolate, which the various cultures have incorporated into their cuisines.
One result has been those seven moles.
In addition to the dark, chocolaty negro - perhaps the best known of all the moles - there is spicy rojo, deep red from the blend of chilies; tangy, citrusy verde, the green color due to the generous addition of herbs and tomatillos; delicate amarillo, yellow from corn maize; hot, sweet colorado with ancho chilies, sesame seeds, and almonds; chichilo, peppery from avocado leaves; and manchamantel (meaning tablecloth stainer), which gets its fruity flavor from bananas or plaintains and pineapple.
Like Mexico and its inhabitants, moles are a grand mixture, made from skillfully blending the country's natural products, its vast variety of chilis, nuts, and fruits.
Mole can be served with meat or fish, and even vegetables, but it is always the mole, the sauce, that is the star of the dish. The meat is often merely poached or boiled and then the mole, the labor-intensive part of the dish, is ladled over it.
Mole's list of ingredients can be long. It is a challenging, time-consuming dish even for experienced cooks, in part because of the number of ingredients and partly because of the preparation - soaking, toasting, roasting, grinding - of these ingredients.
The most traditional cooks get on hands and knees to use a stone grinder called a molcajete. Fortunately, mortars and pestles or electric spice grinders can be used as well.
Often the chilies are roasted, giving the mole a smoky taste. Dried chilis, if used, are soaked first. Nuts and seeds are toasted, then ground into a paste. Sometimes the sauce is thickened with bread, sometimes with maize, or with the ground nut and seed paste.
In Oaxaca, as in most of Mexico, the best food is found in homes, created from family recipes. However, several restaurants offer a variety of moles.
At El Naranjo, chef Iliana de la Vega features a different mole each day. Diners choose pork or chicken with the evening's sauce. Her popular mole negro, made with more than 20 different ingredients, is served every day.
Across town, Los Pacos restaurant offers a mole sampler with generous cups of different moles arranged around a plate and served with tortillas. This is the perfect way to taste different moles and find a favorite.
In addition to running her restaurant, Chef de la Vega also offers cooking classes. (See www.elnaranjo.com.mx.) Students observe the chef's techniques and participate in the preparation of a number of recipes, including soup, salsas, and, of course, a mole.
After the morning's work, students tour the nearby market with de la Vega. Walking past mountains of every kind of chili - dried and fresh, still-life arrangements of colorful fruits and vegetables, bins of dried herbs, and chunks of chocolate - she gives a running commentary on the uses of the different chilies, the best kind of chocolate for the sauce, and how to use prepared or bottled sauces.
After returning to the restaurant, students are ushered to a table set with white linen and china on the central patio. There they savor the fruits of their morning labor while the chef returns to her kitchen to start preparations for that night's dinner.
Even in Mexico, it is now possible for the busy cook to take shortcuts in food preparation. In Oaxaca's markets, mole is sold in paste form. Several kinds are usually available: always negro because it is the most popular, but also several other choices.
A vendor will scoop the paste out of a large plastic container and put the desired amount in a plastic bag. At home, the cook only has to heat the paste slowly and thin it with chicken stock.
Fortunately for today's cooks who like mole but may not want to make it from scratch and can't get the paste, mole sauces are also offered in jars. Like bottled spaghetti sauce, they may not be as good as homemade, but they can satisfy a mole craving once the traveler has returned home.