The problem with Mole

Octavio Paz, one time ambassador of Mexico to India, famously professed puzzlement over the suddenly familiar taste of ‘curry’. It reminded him of the mexican dish, Mole. He asked, ‘Is Mole an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” This issue of gastronomic convergence was the theme of this excellent article in Saudi Aramco World, a magazine dedicated to the diffusion of muslim knowledge and achievements all over the world. It’s a great article and explores the invisible connections between India and Mexico, across time and space.

Mole comes in many varieties, but it usually contains ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, anise, coriander, chocolate, chiles, almonds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, bread and tortillas—all ground together and cooked in a light broth to make a harmonious brown sauce that is served with turkey, chicken or vegetable dishes.

So when Mexicans first try Indian food, especially the watery, sauce rich curries of north India, they are drawn irresistibly to the comparison with Mole. This is just like mole, they tell me, especially for dishes that are agri-dulce, i.e. sweet-sour, or tangy. Consequently when I first tried mole, D was sure I would like it, since it triggered the same taste section as Indian food for Mexicans. However, while I liked the flavor of Mole, it was way too strong for me. It was like my tongue got overpowered with tastes and flavors, such that the entire mouthful was almost unpleasant. I found with experience that I could manage small bits of mole as accompaniment to the rice or tortilla, but not like the Mexicans eat mole here, whole tortillas bathed in mole – the enmolada– or mole with rice, where the rice is accompanied by a generous helping of mole.

I just assumed that it was a personal quirk, that somehow my tastebuds were highly sensitive to the particular flavours of mole. But not a single Indian I know who has tried mole has really immediately liked it. All the Mexicans here were amazed. How can a dish that is so associated with Indian cooking like flavours can be met with such universal rejection by Indians?

I have a hypothesis. Indian cooking in general is very balanced, the proportions are quite regular and strict. This much of this ingredient goes well with that much of this other ingredient. So a dish like mole, which is famous for the number of ingredients that go into it, some familiar like cinnamon and some foreign like chocolate, completely triggers off a warning that the dish is unbalanced, and the tongue reacts to this lack of proportions. Over the period of two years in Mexico, I have grown accustomed to the taste and don’t react in much the same way as I did when I first encountered it, but even now, I would rather eat mole like I would eat pickle, as a small tangy spicy thing to accentuate the flavours than as a main dish.

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2 thoughts on “The problem with Mole

  1. Thank you, Dinesh, for introducing me to Rachel Laudan’s excellent article on the origins of mole. I, however, a lover of both Mexican and Indian food (two culinary universes which share the principle of moist relishes), find it difficult to agree with you on your idea of treating mole as a pickle, when its whole purpose is precisely to envelop the entire dish and take over as a primary taste. Having said that, I want to suscribe myself to the popular Spanish saying: “En gustos se rompen géneros”. Cheers!
    Luis.

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