Being Mexican-American and living in a border state, I have high standards for Mexican food. I like the taste that I’ve developed from eating the best at both hole-in-the-wall restaurants and at home for 31 years. However, I don’t consider myself a food snob. I still enjoy Taco Bell late at night even though everyone knows that it’s not real Mexican food. When I’m craving what tastes authentic to me, I like to cook the recipes that have been in my family for generations.
I was spoiled as a kid to be able to eat homemade tacos, refried beans, rice, tamales, sopa and more, all made by the women in my family. These were recipes that were passed down to them, so they were both uniquely theirs and uniquely Mexican. I remember that they would all congregate in my grandma’s kitchen and talk while each person would be in the midst of their assigned tasks. I was quite young at the time, so I was too little to properly help, but that didn’t stop my grandma from giving me my own assignment.
“Here, Sarah, you can sort out the beans and wash them.” She would hand me a bag of pinto beans from the local barrio store. I would spill them out onto the table and try to find pebbles or beans that weren’t worthy of being cooked. When I was done, she would bring out a step stool and a strainer so I could wash the beans for her. Unlike other kids who saw helping cook as a chore, making our family recipes gave me pride because I was learning something new that my whole family would enjoy together.
Even now, flipping tortillas over a gas stove flame with my bare hands or making sure the masa in my tamales floats makes me feel that connection to my ancestry. When I cook my family’s Mexican recipes, I am transported back to being a little kid with my stomach growling, waiting to eat.
However, there is one recipe that was lost in translation for my family, and that is Mexican mole. The first time I saw mole was in the grocery store with my mom. It was a jar with a dark brownish-red paste with the name “Doña Maria” emblazoned in red on a bright yellow background. It was next to the other familiar Mexican foods like Knorr bouillon, Abuelita hot chocolate and Goya pinto beans.
“Hey, mom, what’s that?” I asked her and pointed to the glass jar of mole paste.
“I don’t know,” was her answer.
Mole is a type of sauce popular in Mexico and is usually served over meat like chicken or beef and sometimes enchiladas. The term mole (pronounced moh-lay) can be traced back to the original Aztec language, Nahuatl. In Nahuatl, mole literally translates to “sauce.” Mexican mole can be prepared in many different ways and is considered one of the original fusion foods. It has a long history in Mexico, and each family’s recipe for mole is different depending on where they’re from. There is a rumor from my uncles that my great-grandmother knew how to make mole, but the recipe died with her. My grandmother never made it for her children or grandchildren, so my mom had no idea what it was.
The sauce contains several ingredients that don’t seem to go together. They include chili peppers, dry spices, broth, seeds and chocolate. And yet, it remains popular and is known as one of the most complex recipes in Mexican cooking. There is absolutely no way it could be sold at Taco Bell. This is a food that cannot be Americanized.
I decided to try mole for the first time at a local Mexican food restaurant while out for dinner with my parents. After the second bite of my chicken mole, I was hooked. The sauce is on the thicker and richer side. The flavors have notes that are spicy, sweet and savory. I felt like I discovered a secret Mexican dish that even my family didn’t know about, and I wanted to share it.
Several months later, I was determined to make my own chicken mole at home. I went to the grocery store to pick out the chicken breasts and that now-familiar glass jar of Doña Maria. I had already begun seasoning and cooking the chicken when the moment of truth came and I had to prove myself a true Mexican-American by making the famous dish. Many Chicanos struggle with the identity of being both Mexican and American, causing a metaphorical borderland. They try to reclaim the Mexican parts of their heritage through food, language, music, dance and other aspects of culture. I felt this same sentiment when I set out to make my own mole recipe.
I looked at the Doña Maria bottle and noticed that under the brand name, there was a sentence that read, “Add your seasoning!” I failed to realize that Doña Maria wasn’t the actual sauce but a paste that you’re supposed to use as a base for the rest of the ingredients. I was totally thrown for a loop, so I hurriedly Googled mole recipes and tried to scrounge our kitchen for chili powder, chocolate, chicken bouillon cubes and whatever other ingredients were suggested.
Even being unprepared, I felt like I did a fair job of making my first Mexican mole, a recipe of my own that I reclaimed after it was forgotten in my family. Many Mexican families keep mole alive by serving it as a special gift to their families; author and foodie A.P. Thayer explained how his mother would make mole as a special treat for his family when they lived abroad. Even today, he asks his mother to cook it for him when he visits.
Mexican mole is one of the hardest sauces to master, and I will continue to perfect my own recipe to keep it alive so my family can enjoy it for the first time in generations.
Sarah Chavera Edwards is a Mexican-American writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. She tackles various subjects such as mental health, issues dealing with the Latino community and interpersonal relationships through both articles and creative writing. Connect with her on Twitter @chaveraedwards.