September is back-to-school time, so what more fitting topic for this month’s Mexico Kitchen column than a Mexican cooking school? One of the questions most frequently asked by readers concerns the availability of cooking classes here in Mexico. While several cooking schools exist in Mexico City, the best and most authentic regional cuisines are passed on from generation to generation in the regions where they originated, in homes where the traditional dishes are prepared.
The state of Puebla, with neighboring Tlaxcala nestled against it, is one such area. Poblanos, as I have mentioned before, are passionate about food and proud of their long history of outstanding cooking. Rushing preparation and cutting corners at the expense of flavor are, at the least, considered a lack of culinary integrity, if not a small sin. Family recipes are treasured, carefully guarded, and painstakingly taught to those who feel an affinity for the joys of creating wondrous things in the kitchen.
One such person is Estela Salas Silva who, having learned the culinary arts from her grandmother, Chef Doña Eulogia Silva Castillo, is now sharing them with students at her school, Mexican Home Cooking. Dedicated to teaching authentic recipes and techniques, Señora Salas, with her husband Jon Jarvis, has created an environment where students learn through hands-on experience in the spacious, Talavera-tiled kitchen which is the center of activity in their appealing hacienda-style home. Those who take classes have the unique opportunity of living with the family, staying in attractive private rooms and participating in the daily preparation of meals, from shopping at the local markets to enjoying the finished products. While most students stay for a five-day course, out-of-town visitors to the area may take day classes.
My husband and I recently visited Mexican Home Cooking, in the beautiful Tlaxcala countryside near the city of Puebla, and enjoyed an afternoon meal of adobo, which was preceeded by a delicate, cilantro-flavored chicken broth and accompanied by arroz rojo. After a dessert of fresh strawberries with cream, my husband, an enthusiastic gardener, took off to explore the grounds, with their many flowers and vegetables, while I interviewed Señora Silva about her school, cooking background, and ideas on Mexican regional cooking.
When did you open Mexican Home Cooking, and why did you choose Tlaxcala?
We opened four years ago, and we chose Tlaxcala because it’s close to Puebla. I come from a traditional Poblana family. Puebla is crowded, so we looked for a place in the country to start the school.
How long have you been interested in cooking?
I’ve been cooking since the age of seven, when my grandmother started teaching me the family recipes and kitchen secrets. At the age of ten, I was working in Mexico City, in the restaurant La Fogata, helping the older staff members in the kitchen, learning more and more from the great chefs.
You and Jon have built the house and run the school together; how did you meet?
We met in San Francisco, in my aunt’s restaurant, El Rebozo. I worked there with her for over twenty years. It wasn’t the traditional Mexican cooking of Puebla, but rather chimichangas, rebozos, brochetas…completely different from traditional Poblano cooking.
Speaking of traditional Mexican cooking, one of the buzzwords being used now is “regional.” What would you say are some of the characteristics of the regional cooking of Tlaxcala?
Well, I concentrate on Poblano cooking, because the original Tlaxcalan cooking is really more “different” than that of Puebla and takes getting used to…like chapulines (grasshoppers) queltoniles (a pre-Hispanic herb) and huazontles (a plant resembling broccoli)…they’re vegetables and insects that other people are not accustomed to eating, like the gusanos de magey (maguey worms.) These are the most regional foods of Tlaxcala. I’m giving classes mostly in Poblano cooking, and a little of Tlaxcalan cooking.
Did you train for this work, or take classes?
I’ve learned everything by experience, and I think it all comes from my ancestry…you know, many times you don’t need a diploma to show that you know how to do something. I come from a long line of Poblana cooks…my great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother and grandmother made tortillas, tamales and meals in Los Sapos in Puebla. (Author’s note: Los Sapos is one of the oldest colonial parts of Puebla, and today is the home of a large antique market.) These were the women who sold tortillas, who ground the nixtamal …this is the inheritance that I have, from the women of the old, traditional Puebla.
Do most of your students come from the United States and other countries, or are the majority from here in Mexico?
Most of them come from the United States, especially from California, because many of them knew El Rebozo restaurant, and through them, and their support, students have come here to learn Poblano cooking.
How are the lessons structured?
First the students learn about the ingredients…all the types of chiles, tomatoes and everything that we’re going to use in the classes. Their first question is always about how to prepare chiles, both fresh and dried. They are all a bit concerned about which ones they can combine. They need to have hands-on experience to learn to do this, and that’s why I don’t give classes to large groups. With a small class, say four or five people, they can learn what Mexican cooking is essentially about, what ingredients and techniques it uses.
After they get familiar with the ingredients, what comes next?
They learn how to make a variety of salads using foods that are in season, for example now is the time for nopales and fava beans…also batter-dipped cauliflower and potato tortas. Some of the first things they learn to make are adobo, salsas, pipian. They learn how to make things more picante, or less, by tasting. They prepare their own salsas in the molcajete (the morter made of volcanic rock.)They learn the uses of the different Mexican utensils, so that they can prepare food the traditional way, as well as add a decorative note to their kitchens.
They learn how to toast chiles on the comal, turning them, moving them. They learn the processes involved in preparing Mexican food, where the flavor is achieved by doing things by hand. They are so used to everything being done instantly…they learn how to take their time and do things calmly, because good food takes time. With pipian, for example, you need to toast and grind the sesame seeds, prepare the chile ancho and tomatoes, and then cook them slowly to allow the flavors to develop, to have sazón (taste.)
Speaking of sazón, outside the Puebla-Tlaxcala area, what do you consider to be some of the other best regional cuisines in Mexico?
Oaxaca, maybe because it’s a bit mixed with the cuisine of Puebla. The cooking around Guadalajara and surrounding parts of Jalisco is very good too, but very different from here. There is a lot of good food in Mexico, but for me, the best is in Puebla and Oaxaca.
Dianna Kennedy was a big influence in promoting the popularity of Mexican regional cooking. What other people do you think are currently doing the same?
Right now there are so many people, but really, as far as authentic, traditional cooking, they are not teaching it. They’re teaching mezclas (combinations of different types of cooking) and adding a lot of pomposity to things, but really I don’t consider that there is anyone, apart from Mrs. Kennedy, who explains the origins and processes involved in typical regional cooking. I’d like to see people teaching the traditional way, to make sure that the authentic recipes are not lost.
This brings me to my last question…would you like to share a few of these recipes with the readers of Mexico Connect?
Yes, I’d like to give you a recipe for a pipian verde — a green mole based on pumpkin seeds — which can also be used by vegetarians, and for the adobo you just ate.
- Adobo: Seasoning Sauce for Chicken, Rabbit, Meat or Shrimp
- Bistec en Relleno con Mole Verde: Beef Roullades in Green Mole