LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT Puebla, a city obsessed with a sauce. You think Naples is nuts about tomato sauce? That Paris is passionate about beurre blanc? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen how they carry on about mole poblano in Puebla. Ever since the exotic chile-and-chocolate sauce was invented there in the seventeenth century, the city has been the epicenter of mole mania.
This summer a friend and I spent a week in the city and witnessed the phenomenon for ourselves. Every other restaurant had a sign in the window advertising chicken in mole (“ mo-lay”). The chef of a popular hotel dining room told us he sells a thousand orders a month. At a neighborhood food market, alongside the freshly plucked chickens and buckets of flowers, I saw stack after stack of small plastic tubs of mole made by the wives and mothers of vendors; brimming bowls were set out so you could stick your finger in and taste. The local yellow pages list seven mole manufacturers, and a mole cookoff is held every June. Everyone has an opinion about whether you should use peanuts or almonds and if it’s better to toast or fry the chiles. Quirky family recipes are treasured heirlooms: One woman told me that her mother always included six crumbled-up vanilla cookies; another said her mother insisted on two charred corn tortillas, for a smoky flavor.
What’s so great about mole? It’s hard to explain because, to Americans, the crucial combination of chiles and chocolate sounds bizarre. Mole is basically an Aztec chile sauce accented with Spanish spices and ground nuts. The name, from the Nahuatl molli, means a “concoction” or “mixture.” The Spanish word poblano means “Puebla-style.” Generally, when it comes to mole, people either love it or hate it. Me, I loved it the first time I tasted it, more than thirty years ago on a trip to Monterrey. The aromas of coriander and cinnamon and toasted sesame seeds wafted up from the plate. The first mouthful was tropical—plantains, raisins, and almonds—followed by a tingle of warmth from the chiles. Underneath it all was the seductive sweetness of the chocolate. Spicy, sweet,