You’ve probably tried molé poblano, a rich and flavorful sauce usually smothering a piece of chicken. It’s the national dish of Mexico, but it’s only one of a number of different types of molé sauce available south of the border. The regional diversity of the country is illustrated in the regional variations of this signature sauce, differing in everything from color to flavor and preparation. The common element connecting them all are chili peppers, but even those vary by style.
Peanuts are another common ingredient found in many molés across Mexico, and their use is steeped in the rich history of the sauce’s origin. Their shared heritage with the sauce is why peanuts remain an important part of traditional Mexican cuisine, and why some modern variations of molé use peanuts as the predominant ingredient.
Though the exact history of molé’s origin is the subject of folklore and legend, it is likely Spanish settlers who developed the sauce by mixing a variety of ingredients available. Chili pepper sauces existed in pre-Colombian Mexico, but were not the complex and ingredient heavy molés of today. In fact, the term molé derives from the native Nahuatl word, mulli, which means sauce. It was the Spanish who began incorporating Old World ingredients to the New World sauce, including peanuts.
Peanuts originated in South America, but were carried to Africa by Portuguese explorers, and introduced to Mexico and North America via Spanish explorers. Their prevalence in Mexican cuisine is rooted in their European arrival, and especially their use in molé.
Indeed, peanuts are a typical ingredient in many different molés. They are often added as a thickener and flavor enhancer for the sauce, such as in the dark, rich chocolate molé poblano or molé negro. This specific type of molé is associated with the state of Oaxaca, and is known for having a large number of ingredients. Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas makes a traditional Oaxacan molé with over 30 ingredients, including peanuts.
Other molés are less complex depending upon the region that they come from. Molé from the Veracruz and Yucatán regions has an African influence owing to the states’ locations along the Caribbean route of the slave trade. A common dish in that region is pollo encacahuatado, which is modeled after traditional West African peanut stew. It may also be the inspiration for molé encacahuatado which is prominent in the Southwestern state of Guerrero.
According to Chef Fernando Oleá of Sazón in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “the main flavor of molé encacahuatdo is peanuts.” Oleá typically serves a selection of molés at his restaurant every night to showcase the variety in their preparation. He says that while peanuts are a common ingredient, the encacahuatado puts peanuts center stage.
He also says that there is another molé from Guerrero known as molé blanco. It’s a white sauce often served at holidays that uses skinless peanuts to achieve its light color. Molé blanco requires other light ingredients as well, including a light yellow pepper, and is usually topped off with pomegranate seeds for a pop of color.
Regardless of the region in Mexico, molé is a traditional dish common across the country, and is an authentic part of the heritage cuisine. The diversity in its preparation, flavor, and appearance only enhances the colorful character of its complex history. Peppers and peanuts are a rich part of that storied past, and continue to be today.
Check out Chef Oleá's recipe for New Mexican Encacahuatado here.