Guelaguetza co-owner on Oaxaca’s family-focused traditions and making mole

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Mole Rojo and Mole Negro. Credit: Quentin Bacon.

Oaxaca in southern Mexico is world-renowned for its rich food history and traditions… and of course mole, the chocolate-chili sauce that’s one of its best-known global exports. 

In the United States, Oaxacan food isn’t often distinguished from the rest of Mexico’s cuisine. 

One of the best known Oaxacan restaurants is Guelaguetza in Koreatown. Fernando Lopez opened it in 1994. In the 25 years since, Guelaguetza has become LA’s go-to spot for all things Oaxacan.

Now the Lopez family, led by daughter Bricia, has a new cookbook filled with Guelaguetza’s popular dishes. It’s called “Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.”


The cover of “Oaxaca.” Credit: Abrams Books.

Bricia Lopez explains that “Guelaguetza” means reciprocity, to share, to give and receive. “It's really a spirit of giving. It's also a festival in Oaxaca. And it’s also a tradition in towns, where people commune one another. And let's say that my son was getting married, and you were my neighbor, you would come to my party, and you would bring me two chickens and a sack of beans. And then when your child will get married, I will then return the favor and do that for you.” 

Lopez says her father named the restaurant “Guelaguetza” because it was his way of giving back to Los Angeles. 


Bricia Lopez with her family. Courtesy of the Lopez family. 

Lopez suggests people are drawn to Oaxaca because of its traditions and focus on families. 

“The recipes that we have in the book, they're all my family's recipes. They’re my mom's recipes, or my mom's grandmother's recipes,” she says.

“And I think that really is what makes Oaxacan mole so special. Because there are these recipes that have been passed down through generation [to] generation, and they're all by women. And I just look at all these women every time I go to Oaxaca… I just see these fierce, matriarchal women who have single handedly preserved an entire country's culture through food.”

Recipe: Mole Negro (Black Mole)


Mole Negro. Credit: Quentin Bacon. 

THE SECRET OF THIS MOLE IS IN THE DEEP LEVEL OF TOASTING AND FRYING OF THE ingredients. That’s how it gets its haunting pitch-black hue and really complex flavor profiles. I’m not saying to burn the ingredients all the way, but get as close as you can without burning it all. MAKES ABOUT 14 CUPS.

FOR THE CHILES


  • 1 cup (240 ml) vegetable oil

  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 g) ancho mulato chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 g) chilhuacle negro chiles, seeds and stems removed (can be substituted with cascabel chiles) 
  • 1 3/4 ounces (50 g) pasilla chiles, stems removed  

FOR THE REST


  • 2/3 cup (100 g) sesame seeds

  • 1 teaspoon plus 3 teaspoons sea salt

  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1/4 cup (9 g) dried oregano

  • 3 whole cloves

  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice berries

  • 1/8 teaspoon black peppercorns

  • 1 (3-inch/7.5 cm) cinnamon stick, freshly ground (2 teaspoons if using ground)

  • 1 onion (160 g), chopped

  • 1/2 cup (240 ml) vegetable oil, plus 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) to fry the mole paste

  • 6 (30 g) garlic cloves, peeled

  • 3/4 cup (100 g) almonds

  • 1 3/4 ounces (50 g) María Mexican cookies (can be substituted with animal crackers)

  • 6 ounces (170 g) ripe plantains, peeled and chopped into 2-inch (5 cm) rounds

  • 1 cup (125 g) cubed apples, unpeeled

  • 2 3/4 ounces (75 g) fresh pineapple, core removed

  • 3/4 cup (100 g) raisins

  • 2 1/3 cups (400 g) chopped tomatoes

  • 2 dried avocado leaves

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar

  • 7 ounces (200 g) Oaxacan chocolate, finely chopped 
  • 4 1/2 cups (1 L) chicken stock 

In the largest skillet you have over medium heat, add 1 cup of oil for the chiles. 

When hot, add the chiles and fry until all the chiles are deeply toasted and crispy, almost burnt. Make sure to keep gently stirring the chiles. This should take 5 to 7 minutes. You may need to do it in batches. 

Turn off heat and reserve oil. 

Remove the chiles from the oil and put in a colander or on a wire rack so they completely cool. Reserve the oil. 

While the chiles cool, bring 8 cups (2 L) of water to a boil. When boiling, remove from heat and add the chiles. Cover and let the chiles soak for 30 minutes or until they are
all rehydrated. 

In a comal or cast-iron skillet over medium heat, add the sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon salt and toast for 2 minutes. Reserve. 

In the same comal, add the thyme, oregano, cloves, allspice berries, peppercorns, and cinnamon. Toast for 5 minutes, until the spices are aromatic. Grind the herbs and the spices in a molcajete until finely ground. Set aside. 

In the comal, add the onion and garlic. Toast for 10 minutes or until the onion and garlic have started to char a bit. Set aside. 

In a large skillet, add 1/2 cup (120 ml) of the vegetable oil over medium heat. When hot, fry the following ingredients for a few minutes individually, until each is deeply toasted and aromatic, and then set aside: almonds, Maria cookies, plantains, apples, pineapple, and raisins. Make sure each ingredient is deeply golden brown for the best flavor in the finished mole. All ingredients can be combined at the end. 

In a saucepan over medium heat, add the tomatoes and 1/2 cup (120 ml) of water. Cover and let cook for 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. 

Remove the chiles from soaking and add to blender with 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) of chile soaking water. Blend until smooth. You may need to do all the chiles in batches. Pass through a double-fine-mesh metal strainer and set aside. 

In the same blender, add the sesame seeds, the ground herbs and spices, onion, garlic, almonds, cookies, plantains, apples, pineapple, and raisins with about 1 cup of water to make sure everything is blended nice and smooth. Pass this mixture through a double-fine-mesh metal strainer and set aside. 

Blend the cooked tomatoes until smooth. Pass that mixture through a double-fine-mesh metal strainer and set aside. 

In the largest pot you have, add the last 1/2 cup (120 ml) of oil and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the blended chile paste. Let this paste cook for 5 minutes without interrupting. After 5 minutes, add the blended seed mixture, mix, and let cook for another 5 minutes. After those 5 min- utes, add the blended tomatoes and continue simmering. 

Add the avocado leaves, sugar, Oaxacan chocolate, and 3 tea- spoons salt. Keep simmering for another 10 minutes. Last, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. When boiling, taste for seasoning. You may need to add a little more salt and sugar. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

Credits

Guest:
Bricia Lopez - co-proprietor of Guelaguetza, author of the cookbook “Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Devan Schwartz