If you like food and the art of cooking then you’ll love Mexican Culinary Experience, the new Cancun cooking trip from Thomas More Travel. Spend the morning in chef Claudia García’s kitchen and learn about Mexican cuisine, its vibrant flavors and fascinating history. You’ll soon discover why UNESCO declared it World Heritage in the category reserved for culture and traditions in November 2010.
Claudia and husband Lorenzo Celis run Mi Cocina es Tu Cocina Cooking School (My Kitchen is Your Kitchen) in Alamos, a quiet residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Cancun. With over 20 years of experience as a chef, Claudia is a fine teacher, sharing her love for Mexico and deep knowledge of its diverse regional cuisines with pupils. The youngest of eight children, she learned the secrets of the Mexican kitchen from her nanny Amalia and vividly remembers picking the grit from beans and rice and playing with the masa or corn dough. When she was 14 she began to take classes with a teacher she calls “the Julia Child of Mexico. I learned so much from her that I decided to stay on when the course finished and I ended up spending six years studying with her.”
Claudia later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America chef program at Anahuac University in Mexico City and took courses at the Culinary Institute of America New York State campus. She started teaching in Mexico City and says, “I didn’t want to work in a hotel kitchen or a restaurant because the hours are so long and I had small children. Teaching and running my own catering business gave me more time to spend with my family. When I moved to Cancún, I was invited to give classes in English and it was a way for me to rediscover my own roots and Mexico’s rich heritage, inside and outside the kitchen, and to share our traditions with visitors. I love doing it.”
A Cancún resident for seven years now, Claudia regularly visits Mayan communities in the surrounding area. She says, “It’s always exciting to discover new ingredients and recipes.” She adds, “I come from a foodie family, all my brothers and sisters love to cook, one of my sisters is also a chef and we get together every Christmas to prepare different recipes for each other and all our relatives.” This passion for sharing and showing the world the delights of Mexican cuisine makes her the ideal person to be a culinary ambassador and she has represented Mexico at many gastronomic festivals over the years, the most recent being a 2010 event in Algeria to commemorate Mexico’s Bicentennial. During the hectic week in Algiers she had to make 500 tortillas by hand and cook gorditas (fried tortillas with fillings) for 1,000 dinner guests, she says, “I still dream of making those tortillas, it was quite an experience!”
After a getting to know you session on the terrace over homemade pastries and traditional café de olla, Mexican coffee with a hint of cinnamon and piloncillo or unrefined brown sugar, the class begins. Claudia shows pupils the staple ingredients in the Mexican kitchen, starting with corn and its symbolism in the national culture, saying “We grow corn, we eat corn and we are proud to be made of corn,” an allusion to the ancient creation story of the Maya. Known as the Popol Vuh, it relates that after two unsuccessful attempts with clay and wood, the gods created mankind from a dough made from the tender kernels they harvested from a young corn plant. Sixty different varieties of corn are grown in Mexico, making it a world leader, and maize is used in a number of ways to make tortillas, tamales, in soups and even in drinks.
Claudia goes on to mention beans, tomatoes, avocados and finally the ubiquitous chili. After showing the class a number of different fresh and dried chilies and describing their heat factor on the Scoville scale, she calls for helpers to make the salsas. Using a traditional volcanic stone molcajete or mortar and pestle for maximum flavor, they prepare different sauces ranging from mildly spicy to medium hot and fiery, the latter with “Don Habanero” as she calls Yucatan’s famous heart-shaped burner. And for those who overdo the hot stuff, Claudia has great advice on how to cool down after a touch of enchilado!
There’s time to sample the salsas, appetizers such as gorditas and refreshing drinks made from tropical fruit during the morning as Claudia chats about Mexican herbs and spices. She covers the spice mixes which form the basis for marinades or sauces and include the different Yucatecan recados, pipian, the adobo favored in the North, and the most famous of all, mole, a blend of chilies, nuts, sesame seeds with a touch of chocolate. She gives the class tips on handling chilies and spices and shows them how to season, seal and clean the molcajete to prevent the build up of bacteria. Used to make sauces, grind spices, nuts and seeds, stone mortars are very durable and are often heirlooms. Claudia tells the class that she inherited her own molcajete from her mother and it is between 50 and 60 years old.
Then it’s down to the serious business of helping to make tortillas and watching Claudia as she cooks and describes the incredible diversity of Mexican cuisine and the variety of recipes that exists in different parts of the country. The dishes prepared during the morning include antojitos or traditional snacks, guacamole, refreshing fruit drinks, three sauces, soup, the main course, side dishes and a dessert from one of the five gastronomic regions into which Claudia divides the country: the North, Mexico City, Central Mexico, the Coasts and the Southeast.
On the day we visited Claudia she had chosen to prepare dishes from Northern Mexico: Gorditas de Chilorio (fried tortillas filled with pork in chili sauce and sprinkled with cheese), Frijoles Charros (hearty stewed beans), Cortadillo de Arrachera (grilled skirt steak) with rice and Mexican roast potatoes followed by Vanilla Bean Flan with Cajeta Caramel. The soup was the exception to the rule, as a special request from one of our Canadian classmates she prepared Sopa de Lima, a flavorful chicken and vegetable broth from the Yucatán with fragrant slices of lime and a fried tortilla garnish. Depending on the region she selects for the day, other menus may feature fish, stuffed chilies, mole and a variety of delicious finger food.
Finally, when everything is ready, it’s time to sit down on the terrace with Claudia and Lorenzo and tuck in. As you enjoy the meal, you’ll listen to more entertaining culinary stories and you’ll leave with an even greater appreciation for Mexico and its heritage. As they say here, Buen provecho!
For more information on this trip and reservations, please visit the Mexican Culinary Experience tour at Thomas More Travel online or ask at the Thomas More Travel tour desk in your resort about the exclusive Royal Resorts trip on Thursdays. A minimum of six people is required.
And if you enjoy cooking, don’t stop there, there are many more cooking schools for you to experience on your own culinary tour of Mexico, you’ll find them in Puerto Morelos, Mérida, Puebla and Oaxaca among others. All offer an entertaining, informative and tasty introduction to the art of Mexican cuisine.