Uncovering the Mole

This is something I wrote a while ago. A year ago in fact. And it was posted on a friend’s blog. But friend’s blog never grew beyond that single post, so I am now reclaiming it…

I recently came across this description of the difference between an academic and an intellectual:

Intellectuals differ from ordinary academics in holding that the truth is best approached not by producing new knowledge, but by destroying old belief.

(Steve Fuller, “The Vanished Intellectual)

This seems to me a good way to think about the task of the intellectual. But I do think that the term “old belief” needs some qualification. Particularly these days, when the complex cause-and-effect relationship between technology, media and plain ignorance combine to produce a large mass of people with ridiculously short memories. These days, in other words, “old” could vaguely refer to any moment between yesterday and the beginning of time.

Take mole, for instance. Translated into Newspeak, this refers to the intriguing combination of chocolate and chilli that burst onto many (uptown) restaurant menus just a few years ago. Variations come both sweet and savoury – steak with chilli-chocolate sauce; chocolate-chilli cake and so on – which then paved the way for a new experimental bravery, not least helped along by being able (for those of us blessed with BBC Food) to watch the sumptuous Nigella pouring hot chilli syrup over ice-cream, the less sumptuous Paul Rankin making – why not? – chocolate chilli crème brulée. And so forth, not to mention “new” forays into the more general world of sugar meets herbs and spice: red berries with basil; black pepper ice-cream; rosemary crumble. You get the picture.

Chocolate and chilli go back a long way in culinary history. Their most celebrated relationship is probably in the Mexican mole, which derives from the Aztec molli, meaning “stew” or “sauce”. There are several versions of how the dish was created, but most agree on it being sometime in the 17th century, in the vicinity of a convent, where a nun – or a friar – prepared the dish accidentally – or on purpose – in honour of a visiting viceroy. It has since generated hundreds of varieties across Mexico, though its home-turf is said to be either Oaxaca or Puebla, the latter giving name to the oft-quoted “national” dish of Mexico, Mole Poblano de Guajolote, which is (wild) turkey in a mole sauce. What the many versions do have in common are the main ingredients of three to four types of dried chilli (typically ancho, pasilla, guajillo, mulatto or chiplote); toasted, ground nuts (normally almonds and pumpkin seeds, though some prefer pine- or peanuts, while sesame seeds are reserved for sprinkling on the finished dish); a spice mixture of crushed peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves; raisins; dried herbs (oregano or thyme); and finally, chocolate. Bitter chocolate, of course, though ideally toasted and ground (Mexican) cocoa beans. Some recipes use tomatoes as a base, and stale white bread as a thickener, while the more elaborate will also contain goodies such onions, garlic and even coffee.

The point here is that the chocolate-chilli combinations that most people (outside Spanish-speaking countries, that is) come to know nowadays are regarded and, more crucially, (re)presented as “innovations”. Which means that for many in Cape Town, for example, chocolate-meets-chilli will be remembered as the signature dish of, say, Madame Zingara’s, that burgundy den of “decadent dining” (the menu says so) where you can count yourself lucky for a table on a Friday night. Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city by most standards. In cities such as this, people are constantly looking for the latest, the newest, the hippest, the most talked about. We look for the new to add to our list of used. “Been there, have you tried their steak with chocolate-chilli sauce?” And if the used is good enough – by varying and as yet undefined criteria, I might add – it quickly becomes the habitual. “Yeah, I was back there last Friday…”. So, as these things go, what was new slowly but surely becomes old; ideas are received into some collective consciousness and begin their strange mutation into “fact”. Chocolate and chilli comes from Long Street, and History is deleted.

These, I am sorry to say, are some of the ‘old beliefs’ that reign in drive-thru societies with five-minute memories. Where children grow up thinking that Uncle Disney created “The Little Mermaid”; that Britney Spears wrote “I Love Rock-n Roll”; that Reality TV is real. But is it their fault? Well, no and yes. No, because who can really resist the conditioning of the media, and even its ancient – though still alive and kicking – cousin, the grapevine? Yes, because in this time of access to information, there is, quite simply, no excuse for that kind of ignorance. Yet, against all the odds, the ignorance persists, and it is this which complicates the task of the intellectual who must contend with the old not only in the sense that Fuller implies – that is, with beliefs that have been circulating for decades, even centuries – but also with this strange new-old belief-system that we pick up and pay for with as little thought as buying a carton of Long Life milk.

Now, I am not a purist when it comes to food. Everyone knows that some of the best dishes are born from improvising – making personal – some recipe glimpsed in a waiting-room magazine, or from hearsay. But I do believe that if you borrow something from someone, acknowledgement is due, particularly in a public arena. Think of an academic situation: there are all sorts of rules that we try to impress on students about referencing. Always make it clear whether you are quoting someone directly, or citing, or merely borrowing a point to further an argument. Whatever you do, let there never, ever, be a doubt that the work is your own if it is not. These rules are not there simply to keep people out of university court, or to strip them of degrees should they be caught plagiarising. Referencing is an act of decency and respect; it is about acknowledging an interaction; it is about contextualising; it is about historical awareness. It is about calling things by their names.

Which explains my pleasure one evening when we went out for dinner at a (notoriously bad) neighbourhood restaurant and were served mole, called by its name. It was not the venue that had attracted – there have been too many instances of bad service at that particular place to keep me coming back – but the fact that Z., a friend, was a guest-chef that evening. There was a choice of chicken or vegetable mole, with a quinoa pilaf. My companion and I both had the chicken. I have never eaten mole in Mexico, nor, indeed, cooked by a Mexican. But I have read and tried many recipes, and I can confidently say that what we ate that evening was damn fine. The sauce was thick and dark, almost a paste though not pasty. Slightly crunchy from the ground nuts. The cinnamon there but not overpowering. The chocolate almost imperceptible, as it should be. The chicken tasted of the sauce. There could have been more chilli, but then I tend to like it very hot, and this was quickly solved with a little extra peri-peri.

There were, however, two details that disappointed, though none to do with the food. Firstly, the place was not even half-full. It had obviously been badly advertised, meaning that a lot of people missed out on a chance to taste a really good mole. Secondly, as soon as the boy waiting on us hastily read through the folded up piece of paper withdrawn from his pocket that was Zuki’s menu, it was obvious that the service had not improved. Nor did he have any idea of what the dishes he was advertising were (“Mole? Ja, I think it’s like chicken with sesame, hey”). In a time where successful marketing depends more often than not on packaging a product in a story, this seemed to me a pitiful example, not to mention an indignity to Zuki’s efforts.


In a recent essay, Anthony Daniels (a doctor, I believe) takes issue with some of the views put forward at a conference by the Pakistani journalist-editor Najam Sethi:

It was not that I agreed with everything he [Sethi] said, much to the contrary; he illustrated his belief in the possibility of genuine multiculturalism by reference to the different kinds of restaurant to be found in most large cities nowadays. (I have always suspected that, at root, multiculturalism means, at least for westerners, tapas today, tom kha kai tomorrow, and tarte tatin the day after. This is to take the idea that we are what we eat a little too seriously.)

(“Pundits & Panjandrums”)

I suspect that Daniels’ summary of Sethi’s idea of multiculturalism is somewhat simplified; this so-called multiculturalism is, after all, a beast of many layers, the most visible of which is seldom the most telling. Any suggestion that the mere existence of different kinds of restaurants testifies to the multicultural only invites ridiculous comparisons, like so does imported whisky in a bottle store: where do we draw the line? That kind of analysis begs nuance and complexity, not least some distinction between the historical (left over from, say, colonialism: Portuguese restaurants in Mozambique) and the “new”, as well as a survey of who mans and frequents said establishments and why (which inevitably leads to that tricky area of “authenticity”).

Nevertheless, Daniels’ dismissal of the idea seems to me equally simplistic. What we eat – and do not – how, where and why is not insignificant. It is very telling of our cultural climate, but only if we stop to think about how these things came about. Well, for one, it is the movement of people that enables cultural interaction, be it through slavery, exile, political displacement or through that more pleasant version, emigration. But we also know that behind every plate of lasagne is not an Italian mamma. This is because the media – from the printed word to the internet – enables a flow of knowledge that (sorry, I can’t avoid the tired phrase) crosses boundaries. It is, quite simply, the dissemination of information on a(n almost) global scale that is the backbone of the cosmopolis.

This is all fine and well. It is, in fact, fantastic. Because it means that I can sit in my room in Cape Town and learn all there is to know about mole. It means that someone else has done the same, and is cooking it in some kitchen a short drive away that I can patronise. Hell, if I was Jeffrey Steingarten and employed by Vogue, I could probably have a sample Fed-Exed to me from Mexico by tomorrow evening. The problem really begins with what people do – or don’t do – with this information. That is, when people become spoilt by abundance; when they become so saturated with knowledge so unremittingly available and so unselectively absorbed that they begin to forget where it all comes from. At this stage, anything goes: century-old ideas become innovations; traditions are invented in a twenty-minute countdown on cable television. The global village has become a strange and sinister free-for-all.

You see, I have always suspected, to usurp Dr. Daniels’ train of thought, that beneath all of this “multiculturalism” lies a deep-seated insecurity about where we are and what we’re doing. Like the child inundated with wrapping paper after getting too many Christmas presents, half of which will be broken or forgotten by the next day, the other half smoothly absorbed into possession, a fact of life. The unbearable wait is ancient history. Yes, sometimes the task of the intellectual must be to recover the old. Just this morning, alas, in a widely read and respected newspaper was a journalist professing that chocolate with chilli was ‘the creation’ of some contemporary “molecular” chef in Lombardy, Italy. Sigh. Did I mention, by the way, that in one of the stories surrounding the creation of mole, it was meant to represent and celebrate the mixing of the New World with the old? Oh, and that Z. is a self-trained chef. He has a degree in archeology.