The winner of 'most famous Oaxacan dish' surely goes to the mole (pronounced mo-lay and literally translated as sauce). A mole you'll find in the chilled aisle of every supermarket in the UK is guacamole which can be as simple as mashed avocado with a squeeze of lime, but Oaxacan moles take sauce to another level.
Some moles contain more than 25 different ingredients, including several types of dried chillies, spices, herbs, seeds, tomatoes, nuts, fruits, and even chocolate, biscuits or bread! Considering the huge list of ingredients and the labour-intensive process, it's clear why moles are considered special occasion dishes, served at birthday parties, wedding and Day of the Dead celebrations.
It's thought that the word mole comes from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning mixture. There's certainly a lot of mixing involved in the cooking process, not to mention toasting, charring, grinding, pounding and blending. It's a labour of love and you can see why the sauce is the star of the dish - the meat, fish or veg it's poured over takes the supporting role.
Oaxaca famously has 7 classic moles (though there are actually many more if you consider local or family recipes and traditions) - here are the 'official' 7 types!
Green mole contains the most fresh ingredients, namely tomatillos (a green, sour tomato-like fruit from the gooseberry family), green tomatoes, jalapeños and plentiful fresh herbs including parsley and 2 distinctly Mexican herbs - pungent epazote and aniseed-tasting herba santa. No time-consuming toasting and grinding here - the ingredients are simply boiled then blended to a sauce and served with chicken or fish.
Fresh tomatillos and herbs for sale at Oaxaca's main market, Central de Abastos
Mole Coloradito/Mole Rojo
Red mole is tangy and slightly more complex-tasting than green mole, as it contains lots of fresh red tomatoes and dried ancho and guajillo chillies, as well as toasted canela (Mexican cinnamon), allspice and cloves. It's thickened slightly with almonds and sesame seeds, and can be sweetened with raisins and occasionally chocolate. It's usually served with chicken, but you can also serve it with turkey, pork or rabbit.
Canela (cinnamon) for sale, and a typical Oaxacan dried chilli shop, found on practically every street corner!
The name of this deep red mole translates as table cloth stainer, as it contains several dark red chillies (including anchos rojos, guajillo and chilcostles), and sometimes annatto powder. Its delicious, smoky flavour is complemented by sweetness from tropical fruit, usually pineapple, and starchy plantain, and is often served with chicken.
Although it's called yellow mole, mole amarillo is actually more red in colour. It seems that the name comes from the yellow chillies it contains, which are unique to Oaxaca - chilhuacle amarillo and costeno amarillo. This delicious, garlicy mole is also versatile - serve it with chicken, pork, beef or vegetables, and add corn dumplings called chocho yones.
Yellow mole with chicken, and a mole grinding machine in a mole/chocolate shop in Oaxaca
The rarest and most unusual of the 7 moles, chichilo is flavoured with blackened chilli seeds and burnt tortillas, giving it a rich, dark taste. As if these flavours weren't powerful enough, toasted avocado leaves (seen on the photo to the left!) are added for their aniseed-aroma, along with allspice, cumin, clove, cinnamon and Mexican oregano, then the mole is topped with fresh chillies, onion and lime!
This mole is made with tangy tomatoes and raisin-like ancho chillies, as well as chilhuacle chillies which make it fiery hot. Chocolate is often added to make the dish sweeter and richer and help balance the heat. Mole rojo is probably the most familiar mole outside of Mexico - you might recognise it as it's used as a sauce for enchiladas in Mexican restaurants in the US and UK, in which case the chocolate is omitted.
Mole Negro Oaxaqueno
Mole negro is the most complex and labour-intensive of all the moles, and Oaxaca's most famous and popular. It's a dish traditionally prepared for the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, to be placed on the family altar as an offering to departed loved ones.
It can contain 5 varieties of dried chilli - guajillo, pasilla, ancho, chipotle and chilhuacle, the seeds of which are all saved and toasted until completely black, soaked in water, drained, soaked again then ground and strained into the sauce along with the toasted, soaked and blended chilli flesh itself! All the other ingredients, from onion, garlic, tomatoes to almonds, pecans, sesame seeds and peanuts, cinnamon, cloves, raisins and peppercorns are toasted or dry-fried, too, for maximum flavour. Once everything is then blended, it's fried again (this time in oil), stock is added and the resulting mole is poured over poached chicken.
Leftover mole negro is also delicious as a filling for tamales, along with shredded pork or chicken, to make a popular breakfast dish known as tamales Oaxaquenos. Tamales in other regions of Mexico are often wrapped in corn husks, but in Oaxaca they tend to use banana leaves.
Banana leaves are sold fresh at the market
The markets in Oaxaca sell mole pastes to make the whole mole-making process much quicker and easier - these thick pastes just need to be fried then let down with plenty of stock (and blended tomatoes if the recipe calls for them). 'Fast food' compared with the laborious process of making the mole paste itself!
Selection of pre-prepared mole pastes