Salsa Is Hot, but Mexicans Say Ole to Mole

The most-celebrated dish south of the border is virtually unknown in the states

Most non-Mexicans tend to envision tacos and tostadas when they think of Mexican food, but perhaps the quintessential Mexican dish is mole.

A product - like the Mexican people themselves - of the joining of two worlds more than 500 years ago, mole is a rich, thick, and often quite astonishing sauce mixing the spices and nuts of the 15th-century ``known'' world with some of the greatest comestible discoveries - including chocolate - of the continent Europeans bumped into in 1492.

Sometimes black, sometimes green, and sometimes as deep reddish-brown as the walls of an old hacienda, mole contains between 20 and 30 ingredients - among them peanuts, sesame seeds, nut pastes, chiles, onions, garlic, the afore-mentioned chocolate, plantain, pumpkin seed, and a rack of spices - which may explain why the average stateside Mexican restaurant doesn't serve it.

Some Mexicans, including Mexican-food authority Patricia Quintana, consider mole too substantial and central a dish to be reduced to the status of a mere sauce. But it is always served over something - like chicken or turkey, enchiladas or eggs - and some liquid, usually chicken broth, is mixed into the ingredients until they take on the consistency of a thick sauce or puree. And having recently moved to Mexico from France, where sauces define the cuisine, I see nothing demeaning about calling mole a sauce.

Most Mexicans will also tell you that mole was invented by a religious order in colonial Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, in what was then New Spain. I have been told that a monk did the honors, and Ms. Quintana credits nuns in a Poblano (``from Puebla'') convent who were out to impress a newly arrived Spanish visitor with an exotic mix of new - and old-world products.

But according to Roberto Espinoza Caballero, those stories are ``mostly myth.'' Mr. Espinoza, president of the national mole festival in this village outside the Mexican capital, says mole is more accurately the mixing of a dish the indigenous people of Mexico ate well before Hernando Cortez, with some of the ``new'' products the Spanish brought with them, such as cinnamon, cloves, and cumin.

``It really is a mezcla,'' or mix, ``of two cultures, and not the invention of colonial kitchens,'' he says.

What is not disputed is that the country's best-known mole is Poblano, while other varieties hail from the states of Oaxaca - where the sauce is often as black as the region's panther-black pottery - and Michoacan. But many Mexico City cooks prefer the San Pedro product. ``It's the most savory of the moles available,'' says Maria-Luisa, a Mexico City resident who serves mole for special family occasions. ``When they tell me in the market their mole is from San Pedro de Atocpan, I buy it.''

Mexicans buy their mole either dry or in semi-prepared paste or doughlike form. Either way, all they add is a little oil and chicken broth, and a complex and intriguing sauce is ready to serve.

In a country where traditions are measured at least in centuries, if not millennia, San Pedro is not a traditional producer of mole. But the village, which has been producing mole for more than 30 years, offers a picture of Mexico's transition from an agrarian society to an industrial and service economy.

``Forty years ago all people did in San Pedro was grow corn and beans,'' Espin- oza says, ``but now 90 percent of the 10,000 people living here are connected to the production of mole.''

The village should erect a statue of Abaq Teran. As local legend has it, the villager returned from market in the capital one day in the late 1950s with an idea: Why not make our own mole?

San Pedro hasn't been the same since. Today most local farmers have left the fields, but dozens of families blend the 26 ingredients - none of which are grown near the town - to make the basic San Pedro de Atocpan moles: almendrado (with almond paste), the best known; pipian (pumpkin seed); adobo (vinegar sauce), and verde (green). Other families run restaurants or deliver the product to markets, Mexico City restaurants, and other clients.

Once a year in October the village throws a party to celebrate Mr. Teran's inspiration. And if the success of the mole festival is any measure, Mexicans are experiencing a mole craze. For its first eight years, the festival was only a one-week event; it doubled to two weeks in 1985, and 1994 was the second year of a 23-day fair.

``Despite appearances, we're still very much an independent and family-based operation,'' Espinoza says. The village's only registered company does export some mole as far away as Uruguay and Chile. ``But what we're really working on is the United States and Canada.''

Taking Teran's vision a step further, Espinoza says the village believes ex- panding trade relations with Mexico's northern neighbors would present the opportunity to introduce them to what he calls ``the king of mexican dishes.''

Tacos and tostadas, step aside.

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