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Perfection in a Box

Most Sundays when we lived in Mexico City, our family would have supper at my great aunts’ apartment, El 7. Those days were some of my fondest childhood memories.

My great aunts, Esther and Concepcion, never married; we called them by their nicknames, Nona and To.

Their apartment, on the seventh floor of a high-rise, was an elegant, spacious place with Persian carpets lining the hardwood floors, a grand piano in the corner of an enormous library, antique wood furniture and a beautiful dining room with a round table and an art nouveau style emerald-green glass chandelier with gold accents.

I loved exploring every corner of their apartment but especially my Tia Nona’s bedroom because she had an extraordinary collection of fantasy jewelry and old pink lipsticks in brass cases.

Though the lipsticks smelled funky with age and were waxy to the touch, I loved putting them on. I would sit on the cushioned seat in front of her beautiful antique vanity and place layers and layers of plastic jewelry on my little neck. I would then arrange a silk scarf around my head and apply a little hot pink lipstick to my lips. When I was done, I would glide my 6-year-old self out to the living room where the adults would be eating their appetizers and someone would announce, “The queen has arrived!”

Perfectly spiced pipan

But the other highlight of those wonderful Sunday afternoons was the food — in particular, pollo en pipian — chicken in a tasty green sauce made of pumpkin seeds, chiles and other spices. (Here it is also called mole verde). The dish was made by María Luisa, my aunt’s longtime cook. She was cranky — inspiring fear in us kids (and some adults) — but boy could she cook! Her pipian was thick, sumptuous and perfectly spiced so that no ingredient predominated. I would devour the chicken with her sauce covering a folded tortilla with a big side of white rice. Her recipe, it seemed to me, was a carefully guarded secret. Besides, one needed very special permission to enter Maria Luisa’s kitchen. She did not happily accept  guests. So I rarely ventured back there, unless she seemed in a good mood and likely to approve.

There are many variations of pipian but as I got older and aware of recipes, I was sure Maria Luisa’s mole must have been derived from the central region of Mexico where she was from. The pipian’s trademark ingredient is the pumpkin seed, which can be toasted to give the mole a richer flavor. All other ingredients seem to vary according to the recipe. Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on Mexican food, lists the pipian from Oaxaca as simple mole verde in her book, “The Art of Mexican Cooking.” She calls this a “true aficionados mole” with a “complex flavor” that includes lettuce leaves, radish leaves, garlic, onion and tomatillos.

Maria Luisa’s secret ‘recipe’

I don’t usually have too many kitchen disasters but boy has pipian given me a headache! It has never turned out as thick and rich and refined as Maria Luisa’s. I wish I could ask her how she made her green pipian but, alas she has passed away. I imagine her grinding fresh spices, carefully preparing each step of the sauce, lovingly stirring it until it was the perfect consistency. With more complex moles like the mole negro or poblano, it could take days to make the sauce. I wonder how long she prepared for our arrival on Sundays. Did she turn on her little black-and-chrome radio in her kitchen and listen to the news as she labored over the sauce?

And so the other day, after yet another disappointing attempt at making pipian from scratch, I called my Aunt Nona, who is now 92-years-old and still going strong. I told her of how much I missed those Sunday afternoons at El 7 and how much fun it was to dress up in her room. I lamented that Maria Luisa was no longer alive to share her pipian recipe with me. My Aunt Nona seemed momentarily baffled, “Receta? Que receta?” Poor Nona, she is so old she doesn’t remember, I think, so I say, “The recipe for the pipian, Nona. Remember how delicious it was?” She waits a beat and then says in her shaky, sweet voice, “Oh, sweetie. There was no recipe. Maria Luisa just went to the market and picked up a powder. She just added the broth.”

All these years I have salivated at the thought of Maria Luisa’s pipian when in fact it was probably Dona Maria’s pipian — from a jar or a counter at the nearest market! And so my mother and I made the pipian the other day. We were skeptical at first. But then as we tasted the thick, spicy yet gentle sauce poured on the chicken, we smiled. It would have made Maria Luisa proud.

Lorenza Munoz teaches Mexican cooking classes in Los Angeles and travels frequently to her native Mexico to write about its food culture. She covered news and entertainment for 14 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Mole verde. Credit: SM Bata.