This Saturday, Friends of Santa Cruz Parks—a not-for-profit organization devoted to sustaining local state parks and beaches—hosts its third annual Mole & Mariachi Festival in downtown Santa Cruz. Six competitors will prepare their versions of mole, vying for two honors: People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice. Mole, for those unfamiliar, is “like a Mexican curry,” explains Cesario Ruiz, the chef behind My Mom’s Mole and one of the festival’s contestants.
Mole, pronounced MOH-lay, is a general designation for a number of sauces used in Mexican cuisine. In the Aztec language Nahuatl, mōlli simply means “sauce.”
“Every region, and really every cook, has its own version,” says Ruiz. “It’s just a blend of spices and different ingredients.”
Mole is so versatile, in fact, that one region in Mexico boasts more than half a dozen different kinds, including mole negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, and coloradito. Each of the six varieties has different colors and flavors based on their traditional combinations of distinctive chilis and herbs. The best known of Oaxaca’s moles is mole negro, named for its inky hue. It often includes chocolate in addition to its chili peppers, onions, garlic, and more.
But, for all its variations, all mole begins in the same way: with dried chili peppers. “Some chilis,” Ruiz says, “only grow in certain parts of Mexico. It’s the chilis that make mole unique.” Oaxaca, a region renowned for its moles, is large and mountainous, and, Ruiz continues, its climate is ideal for growing several different kinds of chili peppers.
Ruiz hails from Guanajuato, a region just to the east of Jalisco. “It’s a hot region,” he says, “so hot peppers are important to my mole.” The recipe he plans to enter on Saturday includes more than two-dozen ingredients and is more spicy than sweet. It was inspired by his mom’s recipe but he has added specific flavors and twists to make it his own.
In addition to tasting Ruiz’s signature mole at this weekend’s festivities, mole-lovers can spend an afternoon making the sauce with him at his new monthly classes at the El Pájaro CDC Commercial Kitchen Incubator in Watsonville. After partnering with Friends of Santa Cruz State parks for two mole classes this summer, Ruiz decided to continue sharing how to make one of Mexico’s culinary gems. His class, titled Mysteries of Mole Unlocked!, will be held the second Saturday of every month. (Learn more here.)
When asked about his favorite way to use mole, Ruiz answers without a moment’s hesitation. “Tacos,” he says. “I like to take roasted chicken, pull it, and simmer it in mole until it’s thickened.” That meal takes only 30 minutes to assemble, but the mole takes longer to prepare. For the first four hours of his class, attendees will use locally sourced produce and experience how the complex ingredients come together to become mole. During the final hour of the class, they will sit down for a communal feast featuring the mole they’ve helped make.
“People will learn a lot, but more importantly, the environment is relaxed and fun,” he says. “People have a lot of time to explore and enjoy.”