If you ask most people to name sauces associated with Mexican cooking, you will get salsa, guacamole and then typically a blank stare. This should not come as much of a surprise, considering that most people's introduction to Mexican food comes from snacking on tortilla chips, and both salsa and guacamole go well with them. Additionally, both of these are reasonably easy to prepare and can be commercially produced in large quantities. Neither, however, have had quite the influence on Mexican cooking, history and culture as mole sauce has had.
Like any food that is considered a part of a country's legacy, the story of how mole was invented is lost to legend. A few different regions all lay claim to their own place in this history, but the origin stories all contain similar ingredients: an important official visiting a poor convent or monastery, and the nuns or monks doing what they could to prepare a meal worthy of their guest. Combining what spices they had with chicken, the guest was so impressed, they asked what this new dish was, and the religious servants merely responded "I made a mole." Mole (pronounced MOLE-lay) is an ancient word for mix, which was the only way they could think to describe the numerous spices used to create the dish.
Originally, the name stuck to the specific meal of chicken and sauce, but soon the sauce began to take on a life of its own, one region at a time. Soon, almost each town in southern and central Mexico began to have their own signature mole sauce, many with 20 ingredients or more. The most popular variety is known from the area it comes from, the mole puebla, and its identifying characteristic is the use of chocolate to help balance the heat that comes from the base ingredient used in all mole sauces, the chili pepper.
With its blend of flavors from both native Mexicans and the Spanish conquistadors, mole sauce is considered one of the first international dishes. That multiculturalism continues today as many Latin fusion restaurants add ingredients from around the world to the traditional base recipe, creating their own signature blend. Ironically, as mole sauce's popularity wanes in its native country, it is fast becoming one of the most popular ingredients in the United States. It is one of only a few flavoring sauces that does not have an easily comparable equal, making for a unique dining experience.
As people look for new options when they go out to dinner, including a focus on freshly prepared ingredients, they are being drawn towards what is one of the oldest and most indigenous flavors on the North American continent. Each town may have its own take on it, but nothing is more traditional to Mexican and Latin fusion cooking than the flavor of mole.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been writing about food and beverage for more than 20 years. http://www.osorioslatinfusion.com