Understanding Cinco de Mayo in Mexico

For most Americans, Cinco de Mayo gives an excuse for tequila shooters and tacos, but in Mexico it’s hardly noted and is not even recognized as a federal holiday.

Despite what many believe, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day, it’s a day that represents a relatively small battle for independence from the French in the city of Puebla.

In 1861, Mexico defaulted on foreign loans, including loans from England, France, and Spain. All three countries invaded Mexico to seek payment or land for the loan owed by Mexico. England and Spain withdrew from their invasion within a year, but France remained and planned an attack on Puebla where the plan was established to create a Monarchy in Mexico.

As 6,000 French troops approached Puebla, they were met by a much smaller and less prepared Mexican army commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza. Despite the overwhelming French forces, the Mexican troops were able to push back the French and declare victory over the battle for Puebla, even though it wasn’t until six years later that the French withdrew from the country.

Mexico’s Independence is celebrated on September 15 and marks the day war was declared against the Spanish invasion of Mexico, it does not mark the actual day of Mexico’s Independence. On this day, priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared war against the Spanish occupiers in 1810 with his call to arms that is known as the “Grito de Dolores” or “Cry of Dolores,” a reference to the city of Dolores Hidalgo where the priest rung the church bells and made the call to battle. You may know the name Hidalgo as a very popular street, building, and park name in Mexico, this is where that name comes from.

Cartoon by Thenib.com

Cinco de Mayo isn’t a holiday marked by many parties or drinking in Mexico, however the City of Puebla and a handful of other cities do recognize the holiday and the battle against the French in the city outside of Mexico City (DF).

A traditional meal for the holiday is Mole Poblano, a dish that originates from Puebla. It’s a thick sauce made with green chiles — among many other ingredients — that is often served over turkey or chicken. Sorry to disappoint, but tacos are not normally celebratory foods, the gastronomy in Mexico is much more sophisticated.

If you wish to honor Cinco de Mayo and the great battle compared to the battle of David and Goliath, then head out for some Mole Poblano and remember, it isn’t the celebration of Mexico’s Independence, but a small recognition of the will of the Mexican people.

Want to try making this traditional Cinco de Mayo dish at home? Prepare for an all-day cooking event with 7-hours of preparation.


  • 12 dried ancho chiles
  • 12 dried guajillo chiles
  • 6 dried pasilla chiles
  • 4 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole aniseed
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1 (1 1/2-inch) stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
  • 2 cups canola oil
  • 7 1/4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2cup skin-on almonds
  • 1/2 cup raw shelled peanuts
  • 1/3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 2 slices white bread
  • 2 stale corn tortillas
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
  • 10 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 10 teaspoons)
  • 2 large tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and quartered
  • 1 large tomato, quartered
  • 1 cup finely chopped Mexican chocolate
  • 4 tablespoons sugar, plus more to taste
  • Kosher salt, to taste


1 Stem chiles and shake seeds into a small bowl. Tear chiles into large pieces; set aside. Place 4 tablespoons of reserved chile seeds and sesame seeds in a small cast iron skillet set over medium heat. Toast seeds, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer seeds to a spice grinder. Add aniseed, peppercorns, and cloves to now empty skillet. Toast until fragrant, about 1 minute; transfer to spice grinder with seeds. Add thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, and cinnamon to spice grinder. Grind all seeds and spices into a fine powder. Transfer to a large bowl; set aside.

2 Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat to 350°F. Working in batches, fry chilies until slightly darkened, about 20 seconds per batch; transfer chilies to paper towel lined plate as each batch is finished. Remove skillet from heat and reserve. Transfer chilies to a large bowl and add boiling water to cover. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain chiles, reserving soaking liquid.

3 Working in 3 batches, place 1/3 of the chilies, 1/3 cup soaking liquid, and 1/4 cup chicken stock into blender and purée until as smooth as possible. Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain chile mixture, using a rubber spatula to push through as much chile mixture as possible. Discard solids and set chile purée aside.

4 Return skillet with oil to 350°F over medium-high heat. One at a time, fry almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and raisins until toasted, about 1 minute for almonds, 45 seconds for peanuts, 20 seconds for pumpkin seeds, and 15 seconds for raisins. Transfer each batch to a paper towel lined plate as it is done. Transfer almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and raisins to bowl with spice mixture.

5 Fry bread until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side; transfer to paper towel lined plate. Fry tortillas until golden brown, about 1 minute per side; transfer to paper towel lined plate. Remove skillet from heat. Break bread and tortillas into small pieces and transfer to bowl with spice mixture.

6 Set fine mesh strainer over small bowl and strain oil from skillet. Place 2 tablespoons of strained oil to now empty skillet. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add in onions and cook until browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer onions and garlic to bowl with spice mixture, leaving as much oil in pan as possible.

7 Return skillet to medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add in tomatillos and tomatoes. Cook until softened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer tomatillos and tomato to bowl with spice mixture. Add 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock to bowl with spice mixture.

8 Working in two batches, purée spice mixture in blender until as smooth as possible. Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain spice mixture, using a rubber spatula to push through as much spice mixture as possible. Discard solids and set spice mixture aside.

9 In a large dutch oven or pot, heat 3 tablespoons of reserved strained oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add in chile purée and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture has thickened to consistency of tomato paste, about 10 minutes. Stir in spice mixture, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. Stir in 4 cups chicken stock and chocolate. Simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Stir in sugar and season mole with salt and additional sugar to taste. Remove from heat, use immediately or transfer to airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to a month.