The Magnifient Moles of Oaxaca

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Article and Photos by Patrick Holian 

The Magnificent Moles of Oaxaca


Mole Coloradito

Mole Manchamanteles

Oaxacan Black Mole (Mole Negro Oaxaqueño)

Oaxacan Chichillo (Chichillo Oaxaqueño)

Rice Mole (Mole de Arroz)


Perhaps we should start with the name, mole. No, I am not referring to the small, furry mammal with beady eyes, although I imagine the editor would expect me to ingest such vermin. Magazine writing is, after all, most difficult work. Rather, the mole (pronounced MOW-lay) I sought was to be found deep in southern Mexico in the Valley of Oaxaca, a region famous for its seven moles.

Moles are complex, exotic sauces, often with fifteen or more ingredients. Several kinds of chiles are used in most, along with a number of unusual items. Oaxaca is known for its uncommon foods: floras de Calabasas or squash blossoms are frequently used in dishes (delicious); nopales or prickly pear cactus leaves grace some salads and soups (without spiny needles, of course); and there are chapulines, grasshoppers grilled in oil until crunchy and sprinkled with red chile powder (okay, I did eat one e… ah, several).

But I digress. My travel trauma this trip was caused by a lack of time. I had but three days to sample all seven moles. Upon arriving in the colonial capital, also called Oaxaca, I did a quick survey of the local restaurants only to discover that several moles were not to be found on any menu. Yikes! Better to plunge right in than to contemplate the big picture.

I immediately devoured mole rojo for lunch at the Hostería de Anteguera on the zócalo (central plaza). The sauce was dark red with an intensely sweet taste and only mildly spicy. For an early dinner, I enjoyed mole negro at the La Flor de Oaxaca (Armenta y López 311). This mole seemed to be served everywhere and is often called “the king of moles” because of its 20+ ingredients. While it was ‘pepper hot’ at the top of the mouth and tongue, I was quickly learning that moles do not overpower with heat, but rather with a complexity of flavors. They are made to be savored.

Red chile powder accompanies mescal on the zócalo



Red chile powder accompanies
mescal on the zócalo.



I walked for several hours around town, finally pushing myself toward a second dinner at Restaurante Catedral (Garcia Vigil 105). I ordered mole verde, a green sauce that reminded me of pea soup. Perhaps it was the white beans and small pieces of masa (a dough-like corn mixture) that gave this mole its thick, heavy texture. A local plant called yerba santa gave the dish its green color and veggie flavor. It was my least favorite mole to date. I returned to my motel very tired and very full. It was time for sleep.

The next day, I was unexpectedly diverted out of Oaxaca City on a 4-hour road trip that took me to the town of Tlaxiaco, a regional center for the pine-studded highlands called the Mixtec Alta. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Hotel El Portal on the northwest corner of the zócalo. Just past the reception desk was a grand, interior courtyard, home to Restaurante El Patio.

While the place lost points on its unimaginative name, it made up for it by offering mole amarillo. Yes! I had one more off the list. I was served a large platter with two pieces of chicken stranded in a sea of bright, yellow-orange sauce. The flavor was very light and intensely spicy, but what was more amazing was the intense color! Mole amarillo is by far the most beautiful of all the moles.

By the time I arrived back in Oaxaca City it was dark. After two days, I had only tasted four moles. As I searched the streets for dinner, I spotted El Naranjo. While nothing on the exterior indicated that this restaurant would aid me in my quest, its inner colonial courtyard drew me inside. It was here that I met my savior, owner Illiana de la Vega.

Illiana de la Vega, owner of El Naranjo



Illiana de la Vega, owner of El Naranjo.



“Let me tell you about moles, Patrick. Here at El Naranjo we serve all seven moles from the Valley of Oaxaca.”

I could not believe my ears. “Please, Illiana, go on.”

“These moles are based on my grandmother’s recipes, and I have made only minor changes to them. We serve a different mole everyday, Monday through Saturday, and always have mole negro available.”

The mole that evening was mole chichilo, a rich, dark sauce based on chilhuacle negro and a mix of other Oaxacan chiles. I returned the next day, my last in Oaxaca, for mole coloradito. This sauce was a medium, dark red with a rich, crunchy flavor. It delivered a pleasant, back-of-the-mouth burn. A dish served with mole coloradito would go great with a hearty Shiraz wine.

Upon finishing my plate, I pleaded with Illiana to make mole manchamanteles, a distinctive sweet blend with pineapple and plantains. This would be my seventh mole and allow me to complete the list. Unfortunately, that mole was days away on El Naranjo’s rotational menu. She explained that moles can’t simply be whipped up. Rather, they require extensive shopping for the many ingredients, and hours of preparation. Mole manchamanteles was simply not possible this evening at El Naranjo. In despair, I went out into the street.

No matter where I went, I could not find mole manchamanteles. I searched the area near Los Arquitos, a series of ancient arches used at one time to support an aqueduct. I scaled the Escalera del Fortín, 1000 steps of heavy climbing which led to the city’s planetarium. I even ignored the advice of several well-meaning locals who warned of thieves, pickpockets, and banditos at the Mercado de Abastos. Danger be damned! I marched on. I was on a mission.

Light green Chile de Agua



Light green Chile de Agua
at Mercado de Abastos.



I discovered several friendly vendors at the market who offered fresh chile peppers like the light green chile de agua and the darker chile poblano. Others sold piles of dried chiles with wonderful names like chile chiltepe, chile costeño, chile morita, and the beautifully red chile de onza. This was fine, but where was the Mexican concoction that I so feverishly sought?

As I rounded a corner, I finally hit the mother load—mountains of mole. The sign above the stand read “Juquilita—Mole Oaxaqueño en pasta.” I scanned the countertops. Mole rojo, mole colorado, mole negro¼. That was it. Desperate, I grabbed the clerk in the brightly colored Juquilita uniform, asking him in my primitive Spanish if he had any mole manchamanteles. “No, señor.” He answered wide-eyed, meekly pointing to the slogan above: La tradición en su paladar, the tradition of your palate. He was obviously a company man. I abandoned my search at the Mercado de Abastos and headed for the zócalo.

Some of the many dried chiles of Oaxaca



Some of the many dried chiles of Oaxaca.



Dejected, I made my way to the outside café, Hostería de Anteguera. There I met a sympathetic waiter, Juan Manuel Cruz Ortiz, who patiently listened to my story.

“Señor, I am sorry. We do not serve mole manchamanteles. I don’t know anyone here at the zócalo who serves mole manchamanteles. But I do have something that will take your mind off the problem.”

Juan Manuel returned a few moments later and poured me the top-shelf Mescal Pechuga, a smooth, smoky-tasting distillate of the mescal plant. He showed me how to first take a pinch of red powder—a mix of red chile, salt, and gusanos (ground-up, dried maguey caterpillars)—drink the mescal and then follow it with a fresh orange slice. After repeating this ritual several times, I ponder my imminent departure the following morning. Perhaps I had only scaled six mountains of mole this trip, but there is always another day. I began to plan my next visit to Oaxaca and imagined how delicious mole manchamanteles would be upon my return. I was in need of more thought juice. “Juan Manuel! One more Mescal Pechuga, por favor.”

Templo Santo Domingo



Templo Santo Domingo.




Here are two recipes from El Naranjo’s Illiana de la Vega—one that I enjoyed and one that I missed. Illiana chose these two moles since their ingredients are easily available north of the border. If you have trouble finding any, Illiana suggested trying Texas-based Central Market at This Lone Star market should fill your ingredient needs. Buen provecho!

Mole Coloradito

Mole coloradito



Mole coloradito.



This brick-red mole, courtesy of Restaurante El Naranjo, is made with chile ancho, sesame seeds and almonds.

  • 10 ancho chiles

  • 1 pasilla chile

  • 4 large roma tomatoes

  • 4 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 slices day-old bread

  • 15 blanched almonds

  • ½ cup sesame seeds

  • 10 black peppercorns

  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano (preferably Oaxacan)

  • 3 whole cloves

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 piece Mexican cinnamon (approximately 1 inch)

  • 3 cups chicken stock

  • Salt

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 8 pieces chicken or pork

  • ½ medium onion

  • 3 garlic cloves

  • Salt

Clean the chiles with a damp cloth, then discard the seeds and stems. Roast the chiles slightly on a hot skillet. Transfer to a pot with hot water, and let them soak for 20 minutes.

On a separate skillet, dry-roast the tomatoes and the unpeeled garlic cloves.

Add 3 tablespoons oil to a skillet and fry the bread until pale gold. Add the blanched almonds, sesame seeds, oregano, black peppercorns and cloves. Reserve.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a big pot, blend the chiles with enough fresh water, and add to the pot. Let it fry for about 8 to10 minutes. Blend the reserved nuts and spices along with the tomatoes, garlic, and enough water. Add to the cooking pot.

Blend the cinnamon with a little water and pass through a sieve over the mole. Simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Let cook for 15 minutes, then add salt and sugar to taste. The mole should cover the back of a spoon.

Add boiled chicken (see below), let simmer for 10 minutes, and serve with rice and tortillas.

To cook the chicken: Bring 2 quarts water to a boil, add ½ onion, 3 cloves garlic and salt. When boiling, add the chicken pieces and let it boil until the meat is done.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Mole Manchamanteles

According to El Naranjo’s website,, “The name is derived from the fact that this light sauce spills easy and stains tablecloths. It has a sweet flavor because of the pineapple and plantains.”

  • 5 ancho chiles

  • ½ medium onion

  • 3 medium garlic cloves, unpeeled

  • 3 medium tomatoes

  • 5 almonds, blanched

  • 4 black peppercorns

  • 4 cloves

  • ½ teaspoon oregano

  • ½ teaspoon thyme

  • 1 medium cinnamon stick

  • Vegetable oil

  • Stock or water, as needed

  • 3 sprigs parsley

  • 8 pieces chicken

  • 1 quart water

  • 1 medium onion

  • 3 medium garlic cloves

  • Salt

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 1 slice fresh pineapple, chunked

  • 2 ripe plantains, sliced

Clean the chiles with a damp cloth, cut them open, remove the stems and seeds, and spread them flat in a large dry frying pan. Roast them until they shrivel and slightly turn color, then soak them in water for up to 20 minutes.

In a smaller pan, dry-roast the onion, unpeeled garlic, and tomatoes until charred. Remove the garlic cloves and peel them.

In another pan add 1 tablespoon oil and fry the almonds, peppercorns, cloves, oregano, and thyme. Toast the cinnamon stick to slightly release the flavor.

Transfer the chiles with enough water to a blender, process, and pass through a sieve. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pan, add the chile mixture, and let it fry. Blend the rest of the roasted and fried ingredients. Pass through a sieve and add to the chile paste.

Simmer the mole, adding stock or water to achieve correct consistency (the mole should coat the back of a spoon). Check the seasoning and add the parsley sprigs.

Clean the chicken pieces and place them in a small stockpot with water, onion, garlic and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and poach the chicken until tender, about 30 minutes.

Heat the oil and butter in a skillet, and sauté the sliced plantains until golden in color. Set aside. In the same skillet, repeat the procedure with the pineapple slices, adding more butter and oil if needed. Sauté until golden brown. Keep the fruits warm.

Heat the mole along with the chicken pieces and the parsley for 15 minutes. Decorate with the fruit, and serve with rice and hot tortillas.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Here are some other Oaxacan moles.

Oaxacan Black Mole (Mole Negro Oaxaqueño)

There are more than sixty varieties of chiles that are grown only in the state of Oaxaca and nowhere else in Mexico. We have suggested substitutions here to reflect varieties more commonly available north of the border. You can use oil instead of lard, but the flavor will change dramatically.

  • 1 whole chicken, cut into eight serving pieces

  • 6 cups chicken stock

  • 5 chilhuacle negro chiles, stems and seeds removed (save the seeds) or substitute ancho chiles

  • 5 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed (save the seeds) or substitute dried red New Mexican chiles

  • 4 pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed (save the seeds)

  • 4 mulatto chiles, stems and seeds removed (save the seeds), or substitute ancho chiles

  • 2 chipotle chiles, stems and seeds removed (save the seeds)

  • 1 medium white onion, quartered

  • 6 cloves garlic

  • 2 tablespoons whole almonds

  • 2 tablespoons shelled and skinned peanuts

  • 2 to 4 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

  • 2 teaspoons raisins

  • 1 slice of bread (Challah or egg type is best)

  • 1 small ripe plantain, sliced or substitute a banana

  • ½ cup sesame seeds

  • 2 pecan halves

  • 1-inch cinnamon stick, Mexican preferred

  • 2 whole peppercorns

  • 2 whole cloves

  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped

  • 5 fresh tomatillos, chopped

  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano

  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1 avocado leaf, omit if not available or substitute bay leaf

  • 1 bar or to taste Mexican chocolate, Ibarra preferred

  • Salt to taste

  • Plenty of fresh tortillas

In a pot, simmer the chicken in the stock until tender, about ½ hour. Remove the chicken and keep warm and reserve the stock.

In a large frying pan or comal, toast the chiles, turning once until darkened, but not burned or, as some Oaxaquenas prefer, fry the chiles in lard. Place the chiles in a bowl and cover with hot water to soak for ½ hour to soften. Remove the chiles and place in a blender or food processor and puree, adding a little chile water if necessary, to form a paste.

In the same pan, roast the onions and garlic cloves until slightly browned, remove. Then toast the almonds and peanuts slightly, remove. Finally, toast the chile seeds, taking care to make them dark but not burned.

Heat 2 tablespoons of lard in the skillet and fry the raisins until plumped, remove and drain on paper towels. Next fry the bread until browned, remove and drain. Repeat with the plantains. Add more lard if necessary, lower the heat and fry the sesame seeds slowly, stirring often. When they are slightly browned, add the pecans and brown, remove and drain.

Toast the cinnamon, peppercorns, and cloves lightly in a dry pan. Cool and grind in a mocajete or spice grinder.

In a food processor or blender, puree the nuts, bread, sesame seeds, and pecans in small batches, remove. Add the onions, garlic, plantains and puree, remove. Finally, add and puree the tomatoes and tomatillos.

In a large cazuela or heavy pot heat the remaining lard and fry the chile paste, stirring constantly so it will not burn. When it is “dry,” add the tomato puree and fry until the liquid has evaporated. Add the ground spices, the nut-bread mixture, the pureed onion mixture, and the oregano and thyme.

Heat, stirring constantly, to a simmer and add the chocolate to the mole. Toast the avocado leaf for a second over the open flame and add. Slowly add some of the reserved chicken stock to the mole until the mixture is just thick enough to lightly coat a spoon and salt to taste. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes, return the chicken to the mole and heat through.

Serve with plenty of sauce and hot tortillas.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Oaxacan Chichillo (Chichillo Oaxaqueño)

This is the legendary seventh mole from Oaxaca.

  • 1½ pounds beef bones with meat; meat cut off the bones into 1-inch cubes

  • 2 quarts water

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 8 cloves garlic

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 1 chile de árbol or substitute large piquin or santaka chile

  • 5 whole peppercorns

  • 2 carrots, chopped

  • 2 stalks celery, chopped

  • 1 whole allspice berry

  • 1 whole clove

  • ½ pound pork butt, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • 5 chilhuacle negro chiles, stems and seeds removed, save the seeds, or substitute anchos

  • 6 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed, save the seeds, or substitute dried red New Mexican chiles

  • 1 corn tortilla, torn into strips

  • 1 sprig fresh oregano

  • 1 sprig fresh thyme

  • 2 allspice berries

  • 1 whole clove

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1 2-inch stick cinnamon, Mexican preferred

  • 4 large tomatoes, quartered

  • 3 fresh tomatillos, halved

  • 1 clove garlic

  • 1 small onion, roasted

  • 2 chayotes or substitute zucchini, sliced thin

  • ½ pound green beans, chopped

  • 5 small potatoes, peeled and quartered

  • 3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

  • 2 to 3 avocado leaves, or substitute bay leaves

  • Salt to taste

  • Garnishes: sliced onion and lime slices

In a large stock pot, cover the beef bones with cold water, bring to a boil and boil for 20 minutes skimming off any foam that forms. Lower the heat and add the onion, garlic, bay leaf, chile de árbol, peppercorns, carrots, celery stalks, cloves, allspice, clove and cook for 5 minutes. Add the beef and pork cubes, lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Strain the stock, cool in the refrigerator and skim off any fat that rises to the top.

In a large frying pan or comal, toast the chiles, turning once until darkened, but not burned. Place the chiles in a bowl and cover with hot water to soak for ½ hour to soften.

Toast the tortilla strips on the comal until they blacken, remove. Toast the saved chile seeds on the comal and heat until the seeds are blackened. Remove the seeds and place in water to soak. Change the water after 5 minutes, and soak again for another 5 minutes. Drain.

Drain the chiles and place in a blender or food processor along with the tortillas, blackened seeds, oregano, thyme, allspice, clove, cumin, cinnamon, and a little water and puree to a paste.

Roast the tomatoes and tomatillos on the comal until soft, remove. Then roast the onion and garlic. Place them in the blender and puree.

Bring 3 cups of the reserved stock to a boil and the chayote, beans, and potatoes. Reduce the heat, and simmer until the potato is easily pierced with a fork. Drain and reserve the vegetables.

Heat the lard or oil in a heavy pot or cazuela and fry the chile puree. Add the tomato mixture and fry for a couple of minutes. Stir in just enough of the beef stock to thin the mixture and salt to taste. Toast the avocado leaves and add.

Add the vegetables to the mole and heat through.

Garnish the mole with the onion and a lime slice and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Rice Mole (Mole de Arroz)

This recipe combines pasillas, cascabels, and pickled jalapeños to form a trilogy of chiles. This is certainly one of the more simple mole recipes we’ve come across. It’s also very good.

  • 1 chicken, sectioned

  • Water to cover

  • 2 medium onions, sliced

  • Salt to taste

  • 1½ cups rice, cleaned and soaked

  • 4 pasilla chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 3 cascabel chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 4 tablespoons oil

  • 1 teaspoon cumin

  • 6 black peppercorns

  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed

  • 4 green tomatoes, chopped

  • Salt to taste

  • ½ to 1 head lettuce, shredded

  • Pickled jalapeños to taste

Place the chicken parts in a pan, cover with water, and add the onions and salt to taste. Cook the chicken until it is tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Once cooked, remove the chicken from the broth, keep it warm, and set the broth aside.

Measure the broth to 3 cups, adding more water if necessary. Cook the rice in the broth until done, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick.

In a separate pan, fry the chiles in a little oil, then add the cumin, peppercorns, garlic, onions, tomatoes and green tomatoes until the chiles become soft. Remove to a blender and puree, then return to the pan. Add the rice and cook for a few minutes.Serve the rice with the chicken and decorate with the lettuce and jalapeños.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium


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