Growing up in California, it’s impossible to avoid the influence of Mexican culture and cuisine on our lives. My dad was a chile fanatic who grew and dried his own, and chilies appeared in most dishes he made, even pasta dough! On family trips to the Mayan influenced Yucatan Peninsula, or the Aztec influenced Mexico City, my mouth would water for the taste of chiles and fresh tortillas before the plane even landed. Later, as I worked in SF restaurant kitchens and my food knowledge grew, my coworkers taught me that the “perfect” taco is dependent on only two things: A great salsa and a fresh tortilla. I felt like I’d struck gold the day they turned me on to La Palma Mexicatessen in the Mission District, where they make tortillas by hand, with fresh masa made in the classically Mexican process called nixtamalization – using slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), water and heat. I watched as they griddled the freshly pressed tortillas on a cast iron comal, and bought some fresh masa and chilies to take home and roast myself. Having the true taste of Mexico right here in San Francisco was a turning point for me, and my passion for Mexican food was forever changed. A desire to learn more deeply of Mexican food traditions, their spices and techniques, fueled more travel to Mexico to seek out-of-the-way eateries on side streets of small pueblas where grandmothers could be found hand-grinding maize and roasting chilies over wood fires to use in their incredible salsas.
While chiles and corn are both are indigenous to Mexico, Mole, the iconic sauce of the southern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, has a different origin. Varying from village to village, some with dozens of ingredients and even containing chocolate, many of the components of Mole that we think of as iconically Mexican are originally from the Far East, brought over by traders beginning in the 1500’s when explorers discovered the Americas. Cumin, coriander, oregano, cloves, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and even garlic and onions hail from distant lands, beginning with the Moor influenced Spanish conquest in the early 16th century to the Middle Eastern and North African wave of immigration as recent as the 19th century. Mole’s complex flavors and somewhat exotic list of ingredients tells a story of Mexico’s dynamic people, how they endured and reimagined the flavors and spices these foreigners introduced and made them their own.
Incorporating the new with the old was beautifully illustrated on a recent trip to Mexico City and a highly anticipated meal at Pujol, Chef Enrique Olivera’s famous restaurant in the modern, upscale Polanco district. With “mole on the brain,” I was excited to see Mole Madre featured on the menu. Traditionally made with the metate, a volcanic mortar and pestle, Olivera creates continuity and depth of flavor by mixing a little of the older batch in with the new. He showcases this contrast in flavors by serving both together, a darker, less oxidized new batch nestled in the center. Handmade tortillas are served alongside, the perfect accompaniment to soak up the rich goodness of the incredible sauce no one would want to miss a drop of.
Back at home in the states, I was possessed with creating a blend to show my adoration for our Mexican neighbors, to honor not only the country’s culinary greats, but the humble superheroes hand-grinding maize, chilies and spices in their home kitchens. A nod to both indigenous chilies and exotic spices, Masa Mole contains Mexican ancho, guajillo and chipotle chilies with cinnamon, allspice, garlic, onion and oregano.