21 November 2010

Dreaming of Mole

Today’s illustration of connectivity might make you hungry. It’s about mole. Mmm – mole.
McClatchy News ran a story about this amazing sauce about a week ago, where they were unable to resist the temptation to use the title, Holy mole!, then this week, they report that United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated Mexican cuisine to be an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity in an article titled, Move over France: Mexican food now a world-class cuisine. And to that, I say ¡Órale!
I am not just excited about Mexican food this week, though. I am excited because Jamie and I have rather suddenly become the editors of the new website, Expat Daily News Latin America. And so, I have been absorbed in the Latin American experience, trying to work out how we can offer informative and entertaining content to people who would like to join the club of those of us who have already made the plunge. We jammed all week to get the site up and running, and now, we are jamming to get ahead on the content. We must stay ahead of the game, just in case the electricity goes out or our internet does not function, as is want to do around here. The last time our electricity went out, our plans to go for a drive were curtailed by the gas station also being out of electricity, so we came home and took the opportunity to defrost our freezer. So, you see, this is the kind of flexibility one has to have to survive in Latin America, because you really just never know...
So, what does this have to do with mole? No, we didn’t have any mole in our freezer. I believe mole to be a near impossibility here in Argentina, because one cannot find the proper chilies, except, perhaps, at a specialty store in Buenos Aires, which is doubtful. There is one kind of chili that is used here, called ají, which is not to be confused with ajo, or garlic. It is a mildly spicy little red chili that is very sparingly used. It would never do for mole, which typically has at least three kinds of chilies. The other ingredients are all available here – tomatoes, onion, garlic, different kinds of nuts, various seeds, such as sesame, a variety of spices, such as cinnamon or coriander or anis, perhaps some oregano or other aromatic herbs, a few raisins or bananas or other fruits, and chocolate. I would be curious to find out what Argentines thought of such a thing, as the tendency is to stick to Italian kinds of foods, and not make things too complicated.
Mole is complicated and very laborious to make. Some recipes have up to thirty ingredients. It is nearly impossible to describe the flavor, and besides, there are many different varieties of mole, so they never taste the same. You must simply try some. To give you an idea of what we are dealing with, here, check this out:

Over the decades, mole makers took some of the pungent bite from the chilies by throwing in unsweetened chocolate, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and different types of fruit, such as ground raisins and fried banana, specifically a type known as a platano macho.
"The banana is used so that it's not too spicy," Evillano said.
Still, the complex aroma of mole is such that security officials at Mexico City's international airport told the Reforma newspaper earlier this year that passengers carrying mole were triggering bomb-detecting equipment. They asked passengers to declare if they toted mole sauce or paste to avoid unpleasant delays.

I will never forget the first time I tried it. We were coming up from Central America in our Ford Econoline, stopping in some town or city somewhere along the Gulf of Tehuantepec – maybe in Tonalá or Arriaga, It was a hot and sticky evening, and we found ourselves sitting in a small room in the front of someone’s house. The woman was quite surprised to see us there, as we had wandered into town from the coastal highway and would spend the night “city camping” in our van, which just meant we would park at the curbside in a quiet neighborhood, put up the curtains, and climb into the bed at the back. She was even more surprised when I ordered the mole – pleasantly so – and was quite curious to know what I thought of it. I thought it was incredible. And I thought that we were very lucky to be able to come into a regular neighborhood and enjoy this fabulous food while watching through the lace-curtained windows as the neighbors gathered together in the light of their front doorways, chit-chatting and taking advantage of what little cooling effect the night time breeze had after surviving the stifling day’s heat. The whole scene was just lovely.
I have many fond food-related memories of travels in Mexico and even just across the border from Mexico, and I have written about how the food in Mexico is very different from what is served in typical Mexican restaurants in the United States, as yummy as that may be. But in Mexico, the cheeses are different, the flavors are more textured, and the “taco lady” who walks around town on the weekends might have some with nopales, which are prickly pear cactus, but in restaurants, there are no tacos or fajitas on the menu. This is because every meal offers the opportunity for what we call tacos or fajitas, since tortillas are usually included. So, you just pile a little of everything in the tortillas, and by the end of the meal, you are stuffed. I even managed to stuff myself at the Sonoran steakhouse that we figured would surely have some chicken, because I wasn’t eating red meat at the time, and lacking that, I just ordered some quesadillas, which came with an amazing array of toppings.
It is only natural that Mexican food served in the States is altered to accommodate its cultural habits and familiarities, as a matter of necessity. And once the idea is planted that Pace picante sauce is the way that picante sauce is supposed to be, it is difficult to change that impression. Hopefully, expectations about Mexican cuisine can begin to change, as the complexities and the ingenuity of the really unique dishes become better known. Interestingly, mole is not haute cuisine. In fact, it is very, very traditional. However, it deserves a high place on the list of esteemed Mexican dishes because it is so amazing. I suppose it might be a little like barbeque sauce, as the McClatchy article on mole suggests, except that it is not a guy thing. It is very much a woman’s thing, with the gathering of all the ingredients and the tedious preparation of the chilies. I did learn a little secret about how Mexican women prepare these complicated sauces when I was watching my favorite Mexican cooking show, once – they don’t chop all the tomatoes and garlic. They just mush it all on their metates. Squash – done!
I miss Mexican food. There is really nothing like it, here. I have yet to make my tortillas for my friends, because they are very curious about that. The Argentines just generally don’t have a taste for that kind of food, and corn is not a big part of the diet, here. It might be interesting to find a Mexican restaurant in Buenos Aires, because cultural mixes can be very entertaining. For example, we went to a Chinese restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica, once, and couldn’t help but crack up about the pronunciation of “arroz con pollo” – “aloz con poro.” Here in Argentina, this is pronounced, “arroz con pozo,” (with the “z” as in “azure” – it’s very hard to describe this thing that I was calling “those damn double L’s” before I finally got used to them). We don’t see that on the menu too often, although it does not have to be just a Mexican thing. Rice here is more like pallea, and chicken usually comes with your choice of potatoes.
And then there was the Mexican food we ate in Australia. Note to self: The farther away from a place you get, the less likely that the authenticity will travel. My theory on the “Mexican” food there is that the Aussies mistook all the Chileans who are there for Mexicans and asked them for the recipes for chips and salsa, etc. The result – corn chips topped with cheese and drowning in tomato sauce that is not even close to Pace picante sauce or anything I have ever had in the States, let alone in Mexico. So, since we have Chile right here within walking distance of our house, maybe I will have to just leave the Mexican food in the ol’ memory bank and just dream about it.
The whole point here is that within connectivity there is individualism and distinction. It is another myth belonging to those who are fearful of change and difference that being connected and working together means that we all have to be the same. This fear of collaborative tyranny that Ayn Randers have latched onto is another paranoia that has no basis in reality. What is real is understanding that to truly appreciate Mexican food, one has to go to Mexico and experience it in all of its glory and diversity and cultural context. What is real are all of the Mexicans and other Latin Americans who are trying to improve their lives, and have rich cultures of their own to add to the diversity in the United States. What is real is embracing the Latin American community that is a growing segment of the melting pot in the United States instead of fearing and rejecting it, because it is here, it is now, and it is not ever going away.

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