Mezcal y moles: Oaxacan cuisine 22/12/18

Moles in Puerto Escondido market Oaxaca Mexico
Moles in the market

Both the city and state of Oaxaca are considered culinary destinations even within Mexico, having a reputation for its own twist on Mexican cuisine. Oaxaca food is a series of specialities in its own right, but two of its biggest sources of pride are mezcal and moles – that’s mole pronounced not as in the small mammal, but as the “mole” in “guacamole”.

Mezcal is a strong shot drink, in the same ballpark as tequila but with a distinct flavour, and is distilled from the agave plant. It is clear in colour and served in a tubular shot glass, usually in quite a large quantity for a strong shot. The flavour of the agave within the spirit is a little unusual, and Michaela in particular finds it a challenge; the afterburn is not too ferocious. Now, the way to drink mezcal is to first put a powder on the tongue, in the same way as you take salt with tequila, except this powder is ground dried chilli and ground moth caterpillar. We’ve done it, and assume that the powder we’ve been given is that one as described, and were excited to try it. It’s rather unpleasant though, and has almost a disinfectant type taste which we don’t find palatable in the slightest.

So, on to the “moles”. Moles are the sauces which throughout Oaxaca state are added to, or available with, virtually every dish, as the different flavours of the moles compliment different dishes. They are mostly hot in terms of chilli flavour (piquante is the right word) but are quite different in character. Basically they are…

Mole negro – deep brown, almost black, contains chilli, spices and chocolate, but is savoury

Mole amarillo – yellow in colour, tomatillos and spices

Mole verde – green; corn, pumpkin seeds, nuts, spices

Mole colorado – brown; chillis and cinnamon

Mole coloradito or mole rojo – red; tomatoes and chillis

Mole manteles – red; the chilli sauce served over pineapples etc

Chichilo negro – three types of chilli plus avocado leaves and tomato, the least common mole.

You can’t help but enjoy moles whilst in Oaxaca, to Oaxacans, these sauces are what defines the meal. For us visitors, part of the delight is that the recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant, meaning no two moles are ever identical. All part of Oaxaca’s stimulating cuisine.

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