In Search of Real Oaxacan Flavors

December 18th, 2012

Oaxaca is known as the land of seven moles, each of which is distinctly different.    Some may include seeds or nuts, chocolate or plantains, as well as a wide variety of new world spices and flavorings.  While some moles may be sweet and rounded, others can be spicy and astringent.  Although the other ingredients all contribute to the full flavor profile, chiles are certainly the backbone to any mole.


When Comal was still in germination, John, Andrew and I all agreed that the foods of Oaxaca should play an important role on our menu.  I don’t dispute that there are delicious and distinctive dishes to be found in all regions of Mexico, but Oaxaca’s stands out as the most developed, complex and soulful regional cuisine.


Above:  Chilhaucle Negros grown by Beth LaDove of Modern Farmhouse in San Rafael

For me, one of the most exciting parts of working with Mexican food is my continuing self-education regarding chiles.  Each variety brings very distinct elements to any dish, and this is no more apparent than in the realm of moles.

Although some of the chiles used in Oaxacan moles are readily available in the United States, others are elusive.  For example, the chilhuacle negro, which is used to make mole negro, can only be found in Oaxaca.  None are exported, in fact these chiles will not even be found in markets in Mexico outside of Oaxaca.  Likewise with the costeño chiles, used to make mole amarillo.


I’ve found that I can closely replicate the flavors of the chilhuacle negro for the mole negro with a blend of other available chiles, including, mulato, ancho and cascabel.  But we are also exploring growing some of these varieties locally.  I brought back several dried chiles from my last trip to Oaxaca, and gave some to David Winsberg, of Happy Quail Farms. For those unfamiliar with David, he has a farm down in East Palo Alto, where he grows over 30 varieties of specialty peppers.  His life’s passion is to find delicious varieties of peppers worldwide and turn us all on to them.  He pretty much singlehandedly put the Padrón pepper on the dinner plate in America.

Above: Sanger duck enchiladas w/mole coloradito

Of the many varieties that I brought him, the only chiles that he had success with were the costeños.   Interestingly, we discovered that there is no genetic distinction between the costeño amarillo, and costeño rojo;  they grow concurrently on the same plants, and are sorted before they are taken to market.  Also, our friend Beth LaDove of Modern Farmhouse had some success growing both costeños and chilhuacles negros for us this year (as well as a very impressive hoja santa plant), and now has seed to go bigger next year.



I have also recently connected with a woman who is bringing in Mayordomo chocolate, which I will be bringing in this week.  For anyone who has visited Oaxaca City, Mayordomo has a few shops around the zocalo where they custom blend chocolate and spices in their beautiful vintage hand-crank spice grinders.  The intoxicating fragrance can be smelled from blocks away.


I believe that flavors can reflect history, the food memories of a collected people.  I have profound respect for the people of Oaxaca, and strive to pay homage through each plate of mole that we serve at Comal.