Mole– a twist on Southwest cuisine

Pollo en Mole Negro a dish served at Cafe Poca Cosa at 110 E. Pennington St. in Tucson, Ariz.  Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez
Pollo en Mole Negro a dish served at Cafe Poca Cosa at 110 E. Pennington St. in Tucson, Ariz. Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez

It’s a mixture of spices and flavors that take days if not weeks to create and spurs debate about what makes the best. This is the world of the mole and in Southern Arizona, chefs and locals alike seek to keep the tradition alive while adding their own personal twist.

The word “mole” comes from the Nahuatl word “molli” meaning mixture. It’s a mixture of ingredients and spices to come up with a sauce or a family of sauces.

 The tradition began in the city of Puebla during the 17th century when two Dominican nuns who belonged to the Covent of Santa Rosa threw together ingredients to prepare a meal for the archbishop. They gathered ingredients found at hand such as, dried chili peppers, chocolate, bread and nuts to create a sauce for a turkey. And the rest is history.

 Today the chocolate concoction continues to be a symbol of Mexican cuisine. In Mexico, mole is a cuisine staple used in day dining and special occasions, such as weddings and holidays. Throughout the years, mole has made its way into the United States where chefs aimlessly work to perfect this difficult sauce.

Suzana Davila is the Owner and Chef of Cafe Poca Cosa in Tucson, Ariz at 110 E. Pennington St. Photograph by Noelle Haro-Gomez
Suzana Davila is the Owner and Chef of Cafe Poca Cosa in Tucson, Ariz at 110 E. Pennington St. Photograph by Noelle Haro-Gomez

 Chef Suzana Davila, who owns Café Poca Cosa in downtown Tucson, says the process of making mole is a culinary challenge. Davila has been in the business for 30 years and specializes in creating a variety of moles from Amarillo, verde, rojo and even switching things up by using chipotle chiles or chiles “güeros.”

 She developed her mole recipe from spending time in the kitchen cooking with her grandmother, “It’s a love dish, you have to slowly cook it and it takes all day to prepare it.”

 For Davila, the major challenge of making this sauce in her restaurant was the inability to obtain certain ingredients, such as the chiles and spices. However, over the years even this process has become easier. Delivery makes it easier to source products from around the world. Mole has brought new light to diners when it comes to Mexican cuisine.

 “As far as tacos, enchiladas and chimichangas were street food, but the mole is the creation that has definitely opened a lot of people’s minds because they had no idea,” Davila said.

One entrepreneur helps consumers make mole at home by creating and selling freshly ground moles in powder around Arizona, New Mexico and Montana as well as online.

 “It’s all about balancing all the different flavors like the sweet and the spicy and the savory and the salty,” Valdes Schwemm, owner of Tucson-based business Mano y Metate Moles said.“No one flavor steals the show from the other.”

From mole dulce, mole verde to mole negro, she grinds all the raw ingredients to make a powder form, a process that can take up to five or six hours to complete. Her mole dulce combines four types of dark chiles, handmade fine chocolate, raisins, dried bananas, cinnamon, graham crackers and a variety of spices. Mole verde calls for green chiles from New Mexico that have been roasted, dried and peeled, jalapeños, parsley, cilantro, epazote and green pumpkin seeds. While the mole negro requires cacao nibs, dark chiles, pecans from Green Valley, raisins, walnuts, prunes and a medley of various spices.

Each mole powder is sold fully prepared, so consumers simply add oil of their choice, broth and their favorite meat, poultry or fish.

For Heather Hoch who is a staff writer for Tucson Weekly and writes about local restaurants and eateries for a column called “Chow,” “Mole is an experience. It’s a unique balance of many flavors, incorporating indigenous spices, that you just don’t find in other cuisines. It can be replicated elsewhere now with the availability of those ingredients in other countries, but a good mole is just one of many cornerstones of Mexican food.” 

“Like any sauce, mole is all about dedication and love. You have to babysit it and watch it and care for it. It takes time. However, a lot of great Mexican cooking involves time-intensive elements, so it is similar in that way. What’s interesting about it is it varies so much depending on region. People typically think of mole as a cacao-based sauce–that’s just mole poblano, Hoch said. “Really, it’s like telling an Italian chef to make you a sauce. It’s going to be area-specific and incorporate the ingredients that that place has on hand.”

Stephanie Romero is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at smromero@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for high-resolution photos. 

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