Charity Keita discovers that Mexico’s most gourmet sauce isn’t so different from what our Ugandan cousins love to eat
My vision for our Easter meal was clear: this was to be a chocolate-filled affair down in Nanyuki, but I was not getting involved in any bunny business or Easter egg hunt for the kids. The plan was to instead go experimental and cook a smoked chicken in mole, my first ever savoury chocolate dish.
According to a book called “The True History of Chocolate”, the pavo in mole represents the pinnacle of sophisticated Mexican cooking tradition. The word pavo refers to the the Mexican-Spanish term for turkey, while mole is a creolised version of the local word molli which means sauce. The origin myth for this dish dates back to the 17th century to a group of Spanish nuns who were awaiting a visit from the Viceroy of New Spain. By some accounts they accidentally dropped a wafer of chocolate into the sauce and found they did not have the time to start afresh while by others, they added it on purpose to please their guest who was a known chocoholic. Whichever story is true, everyone was instantly hooked and the dish soon became incorporated into local tradition.
To put it simply, a mole sauce is best envisaged as a Ugandan peanut sauce but with the addition of cinnamon, oregano, pepper, a generous portion of smoky ancho chilies (which are not easy to source in this corner of the world) and a slab of cooking chocolate stirred in at the end to add richness and complexity.
Knowing that there was a well stocked supermarket in Nanyuki, I only packed the spices I needed and planned to acquire the rest on arrival. The chicken was sorted; we had the digits of an exclusive meat smoker in the area who only distributes to fancy lodges but was willing to give us a small portion of their personal supply. All I really needed was the peanuts, chocolate and ancho chillies. I knew I wouldn’t find the ancho chillies and had already replaced it with a creole mixed chilli powder that a friend brought me from New Orleans.
“Expectations are the root of all disappointment” my friend Alicia kept on repeating to her kids all weekend and I should have taken heed. While I succeeded in locating a small pack of unsalted peanuts at the back of the snack section (aren’t we supposed to be able to buy that stuff in bulk around here?) I was crestfallen upon discovering that slabs of cooking chocolate were not to be found in the isles of Nanyuki’s biggest supermarket. In the end I had to settle for cocoa powder but felt cheated and on the verge of tears. How was I expected to impart the creamy desired richness to my dish if I was using powder?
I can’t really complain about the results even if the two most important ingredients – the ancho chillies and the dark chocolate – were missing. By the looks of the empty platter at the end of the meal, neither could the kids and grownups. The smoked chicken wings needed but a brief fifteen minute spell in our cookswell jiko before being cooked to perfection and once the mole sauce had been mixed in, the wings exploded with flavour.
I’m sure if I had used the proper stuff it would have been even better but at the end of the day my guinea pigs had never tasted the real deal and were happy with the results. I went to bed smug, content that my meal plan had succeeded even if not quite according to plan.