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It’s known as the Land of Seven Moles.
But this state, nestled in what the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) calls “an isolated corner of southwestern Mexico,” is that and so much more. It is The Cradle of Corn. A region of rare chiles that serve as building blocks of all the complex moles. A source of rich Oaxacan chocolate. Home to the mezcal-producing capital, Matatlán.
“What Tuscany is to Italy, Oaxaca is to Mexico,” the CIA says. “Oaxaca is a place where the art of making fresh corn masa is still a part of daily life and where unpasteurized milk is artfully transformed into long, shiny strands of quesillo, a local string cheese revered for its acidity and essential for making quesadillas and other antojitos.”
Moles and Chiles Star
The word “mole” is derived from the Nahuatlword “mulli,” meaning sauce or potage. Many customers might think it is just the dark, reddish-brown sauce featured in dishes like Enchiladas con Mole Poblano—an entrée commonly found on Mexican restaurant menus in the U.S.
But as Mexico-based writer and el Restaurante contributor Karen Hursh Graber explains, “Mole can be anything from dark and thick to soup-like and bright green, with red, yellow and black moles each claiming aficionados in different regions.” Moles in Oaxaca actually range from the thick, nearly black mole negro to the fresh, bright green, herb-infused mole verde to Manchamanteles, the southern Mexican chicken and fruit stew, Graber notes.
While the ingredients that comprise the various moles, and consquently the flavors they impart, vary substantially from region to region, chiles are the ingredients they share.
According to information from the CIA, Oaxacan chilhuacles and pasillas are among those native to the area. The triangular-shaped chilhuacle chile, used for making mole negro, is found only in the dry and semi-tropical mountains of Cuicatlán in the state’s La Cañada region, while the Oaxacan pasilla, grown only in the Mixe region, is a smoky, fiery-hot chile that imparts a more complex, deep, hard-hitting flavor than a chipotle, the CIA explains.
Chefs Bring Oaxaca to the States
Six years ago, when Greg Lopez opened Restaurant Real de Oaxaca in Lynnwood, Calif., he had one ambitious goal. “We wanted to deliver our culture to people in the United States,” he says.
Using recipes “prepared from closely guarded family recipes passed down through several generations,” sourcing 80 to 90 percent of ingredients from Oaxaca, and hiring employees from the southern Mexican state (where he, too, was born), have helped Lopez succeed.
The menu includes Mole Rojo con Pollo, red mole with chicken thigh or chicken breast; Coloradito con Pollo or Puerco, mole Coloradito served over chicken thigh, chicken breast, or pork; and the Taco de Barbacoa de Chivo, young goat meat flavored in dried chiles, avocado leaves and herbs, then wrapped in a handmade tortilla and served with goat broth on the side. The Traditional Tlayuda—a large tortilla layered with black bean paste, then topped with Oaxacan cheese, tesajo, chorizo and cecina—is another popular option.
Nicuatolea, a traditional dessert made of corn-based gelatin, with hints of cinnamon and cactus fruit flavors, rounds out the menu.
“Our customers like the mole negro—the chocolate in it, as well as the variety of chiles, attracts them. And they also love the red mole,” Maria Lopez, the restaurant’s marketing director, reports. The moles have become so popular that the restaurant sells them, along with Oaxacan cheese and imported mezcal, at retail. “We are really ambassadors for Oaxaca,” she says. “We really do offer ‘the whole enchilada’ here!”
At Zocalito Bistro Latin Cuisine & Rum Bar in Aspen, Colo., Chef-owner Michael Beary also specializes in Oaxacan cuisine, with a spotlight on chiles he imports directly from the southern Mexican state. Customers, he reports, are “absolutely” becoming more interested in and appreciative of the fine points of Oaxacan fare. “We only use chiles from Oaxaca that we import—we don’t make our moles by cutting them with anchos or guajillos,” Beary explains.
And while the skirt steak topped with a dark mole made from the rare negro chilhuacle chile is a customer favorite, the chef says Zocalito customers “really just like anything made with the Oaxacan chiles. There isn’t another restaurant like ours and they just go bonkers!”
Other typically Oaxacan dishes include the Grilled Skirt Steak and Cactus on grilled portobello with goat cheese, a tapas menu offering that includes salsa made with Oaxacan taviche chiles that impart dry yet robust flavors; Aztec Soup with avocado, panela cheese, corn truffles and chips in a chicken, tomato and chilcostle chile broth; and the Pasilla de Oaxaca Relleno stuffed with black beans, vegetables and cheese served in a red mole. (Beary says Zocalito is the only importer of the large pasilla used to make the relleno).
And in Seattle, La Carta de Oaxaca has been a destination for Oaxacan cuisine since its debut in 2003. ”Our house specialty is the mole negro with chicken or pork,” reports Oaxaca-born Robert Dominguez, manager and partner-owner. “Our enchiladas made with that mole, and our banana [leaf]-wrapped tamales, are also popular.”
Other recipes drawn from family recipes are the Camarones al Mojo de Ajo and the Entomatadas prepared with the thin-sliced beef called tasajo, served in red sauce with onions and Mexican crema. “We are from Oaxaca so we know how to make authentic Oaxacan food,” Dominquez says. “Our customers might not know how to pronounce [the names of some dishes], but they come back again and again.”