Holy mole! Gillian Riley cooks up a Mexican feast

Mexican tortilla press. Photograph: Annalies Winny

Gillian Riley gets to grips with a Mexican tortilla press. Photograph: Annalies Winny

Mexicans the world over are recovering from the festivities of Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of the ignominious defeat of an invading French army on 5 May 1862.

At a gloomy point in Mexico’s history, when confusing internal politics and the threat of invasion created dread and despair, a small band of largely untrained men under General Zaragoza defeated the much larger French army at Puebla de
Los Angeles.

This is a good thing to celebrate, and Hackney too can mark this first brave gesture towards Mexican independence.

Fusion food

We can enjoy the world famous dish Mole Poblano de Guajalote (Turkey in a Chilli sauce), which is said to have been invented in Puebla de Los Angeles in the 17th century.

Perhaps the first ever fusion recipe, it combines native Mexican ingredients (chillies, chocolate, tomatoes, maize), with things brought over by the Spanish conquerors (nuts, spices, some fruits). Legend says that the Mother Superior of the Convent of Santa Rosa created this symbolic mix of ingredients to honour the Archbishop who founded the convent. Chocolate, a sacred substance for the Aztec rulers, was a numinous addition to a dish already fraught with symbolism.

The recipe we put together for our fiesta uses chicken instead of turkey, and is a pragmatic version of this great national dish, based on Diana Kennedy’s book The Cuisines of Mexico. London bars and eateries offer burritos and tacos and dazzling cocktails, but traditional festive family cooking is harder to find. So go home, Hackney citizens, put on your pinnies and get to work!

Fiesta time

First of all do a shop in the Wholefoods Market in Stoke Newington Church Street, then browse online for goodies from the Cool Chilli Company, and get some nice free range chicken from Meat 16 or Ginger Pig. We have learned the hard way that frozen or pre-cooked tortillas are disappointing, commercial guacamole expensive for what it is, that a home-made salsa has more zip, but also where and how to cheat and what substitutes we can get away with.

Thus after hours of absorbing and exhilarating toil, I sat down with friends to enjoy a Mexican feast. As well as the mole, there were homemade tortillas and guacamole, with shop-bought salsa verde de tomatillas, tortilla chips, salsa de chipotle and a freshly made salsa of chopped fresh tomatoes, green and red chillies, fresh coriander, salt and garlic. There was a bowl of crème fraîche and plenty of tequila and Mexican beer too.

A Mexican tortilla is a kind of flat-bread made with masa harina, a maize flour that has been ground from corn kernels treated with alkali (lime or ashes) to soften and discard the tough outer skin of the kernels. The chemical effect of this, a process known as nixtamalisation, does wondrous things to the nutritional properties of the masa, creating niacin, amino acids and extra protein and vitamins.

Mexican peasants in the past had a cheap, healthy and balanced diet eating these tortillas with beans, chillies and tomatoes, with little if any meat. They survived and flourished. But when maize got to Europe, and was cultivated all over northern Italy, its paucity of nutrients caused deficiency diseases like pellagra on a huge scale, with resultant social and economic misery. No fear of that in Hackney.

We made batch upon batch of tortillas with masa harina from the Cool Chili Co, available at Wholefoods, who also produce ready made tortillas spewed forth from a massive machine known affectionately as el monstruo.


One of the joys of a freshly made tortilla is its fragrant aroma, which enhances the things you roll up in it, adding an extra dimension to the already pungent food. The pliable softness of a nicely cooked tortilla adds a tactile pleasure to the business of eating. You reach for more, you call out for more, and with a little help from my guests and some basic technology, more kept on coming. We used two comals and a tortilla press.

The press is like a miniature Adana printing press, two hinged round plates with a lever handle to bring one down firmly on top of the other. We used this to flatten small balls of the masa, mixed with water to a firm dough, between sheets of tough plastic. The flattened dough was then deftly transferred to a very hot comal, a flat metal plate heated on the gas cooker, where it sits for a minute or so as it firms up and browns slightly in patches, then is flipped over and given a few more minutes, before flipping again to finish off.

Trial and error got me through my first batch ever, over half a century ago, so the blunders and tears are forgotten, the main lesson being to keep on trying until you get it right.

Mole madness

This is nothing to what we went through to make the mole. The chicken was browned in a little oil and cooked until almost done in good home-made chicken broth. Meanwhile the chillies needed attention: ancho, mulato, pasilla, are what I used, dried red or deep brown chillies, some wrinkled, which are first softened on the hot comal, then deseeded and torn in pieces and soaked in hot water for an hour or so. Meanwhile the spices needed toasting in a dry pan, the sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds (pepitas) toasted separately on a comal, taking care not to scorch them.

The spices when cool were pulverised, the nuts and seeds ground to a coarse powder and the by now softened chillies pureed in a food processor. The chilli paste was then fried to enhance the flavour and get rid of the rawness, then thinned out with some broth from the chicken, the spices and seeds were tossed in, and the sauce cooked until nice and thick. The final touch was to add the magic ingredient – chocolate, in small bits, tasting as you go; this is to enhance the deep dark flavour, and should always be subliminal … if it tastes of chocolate you have got it wrong.

Add the chicken to this heady brew, heat through and serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. All this takes time and energy and imagination, but is so absorbing that getting the meal together is as much fun as eating it. Of all the cuisines on offer in Hackney, Mexican is the one you just have to do at home.

Guac attack

Guacamole made in a food processor comes out much too smooth and bland. I always use an Indonesian granite pestle and mortar borrowed decades ago from a generous Dutch friend who resigned herself to its loss.

To make guacamole you first crush coarse salt and garlic with coriander leaves (the tough stems discarded) to make a dense dark green paste, then add peeled, stoned and coarsely chopped avocados and pound (but not too much), so that the texture is variable. Then stir in some finely chopped hot chilli to taste and some coarsely chopped tomatoes. Pile into a bowl and decorate with
coriander leaves.

A homemade salsa is best done with a sharp knife and a chopping board, avoiding the homogenous mush you get with a food processor. Take tasty tomatoes, garlic, spring onions and coriander and chop each separately very finely, stir together and add heat from finely sliced chillies, then salt to taste.

Having wallowed in the tactile and olfactory pleasures of getting these simple dishes together, we now have to admit that a creative cheat can get good results from Cool Chili Company products and a variety of beans, pastes and relishes from other suppliers. A spot check in local shops reveals the unseen presence of enough dedicated Mexican cooks in Hackney to restock the shelves every week. I for one would love to hear of their exploits.