I dearly miss the food of my many homes. I long for sweet but tangy bún chả, or the flavourful broth of bún riêu cua of Hanoi. My mouth waters at the thought of spicy dakgalbi, kamjatang and bibimbap of Korea. And any time I’m on a road trip and get hungry I crave a flaky New Zealand pie filled with tender chunks of meat.
But it’s not just places I’ve actually lived in. I also regularly find myself yearning for Thai, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Greek, and Chinese food. Dal bhat, momos, sushi, fish and chips, and every type of baked goods you can think of fill my brain when I get hungry. And don’t even get me started on my mom’s homemade lasagna or roast beef or a full turkey dinner.
Ideally, I would live in a place where I am surrounded by restaurants, markets and street stalls serving great authentic food from every country in the world, all at prices that even the cheapest backpacker could afford. If I had that I wouldn’t even need a kitchen.
But obviously, this is an impossible dream. Even in the most multicultural city, the food from all these places is never quite as I remember, and there’s no way I can afford it all anyway! So I have no choice but to learn to make all these things myself.
So it’s been a ‘thing’ for me, in the past few years, that wherever I go, I take a cooking class. I wish I’d thought of it when I lived in Korea but I think I really didn’t realize just how much I was going to miss the food there! But at some point I came to my senses and since then I have taken cooking classes in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, and Mexico.
It’s only a start, of course, because there’s no way I can learn it all in one cooking class. But it gives me an idea of the basics, the essential flavours and ingredients, and how they go together. It’s a foundation for future culinary adventures.
In my travels around the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico I got completely hooked on the food (no surprise there, really!). I loved the simple but vibrant flavours, the freshness of ingredients, and the versatility of the simple tortilla! This meant that by the time I got to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state I was actively searching for someone to teach me how to make authentic Mexican food.
The cooking classes in Yucatan are either quite expensive (think $100-125 for a half-day) or not very well advertised. It took really wanting to learn this cuisine to find a class to suit my budget.
I finally found a cooking class in San Cristobal that sounded great: Instituto Jovel teaches Spanish language, but they also provide workshops in culture, history, dance, and cooking. There were a few options for what to cook, but my friends and I chose to make the most basic of Mexican ingredients: the tortilla.
Tortillas are essential to Mexican cuisine. They’re eaten at every meal, made with the ubiquitous ground corn, and used in every way imaginable: wrapped around ingredients, stuffed with beans and fried, toasted and topped, and stuffed and sealed up around the edges in an empanada. Even if you just order a plate of meat and beans and salad, there will be tortillas on the side.
We didn’t just make tortillas in our class, because what’s a tortilla without delicious toppings and fillings? With them we made empanadas and quesadillas and chilaquiles, as well as salsa roja, salsa verde, and guacamole. And we started with horchata, Mexico’s spiced coconut milk drink.
I began with a market tour from our teacher Irma, which my friends Sara and Kay declined because they live there and already spend a lot of time in the market! They did regret that decision later though, when they’d heard about how I’d been shown the best vendors to buy my sausage, cheese, and veggies from!
The market has everything you could possibly need, from produce, dried beans, meat, and fish to flowers and pre-made cups of cereal for your breakfast! The upper floor had some of the fanciest candles I’ve ever seen, as well as all the cooking tools you might want – I almost came home with my own tortilla press and comal but they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.
We also stopped to get our corn ground at a molino, a special grinding shop that seemed to be lit only by the daylight from the street. There were multiple machines, each for a different product: corn, coffee, and cacao. Our corn was dumped in the top with a trickle of water, and from the bottom we scraped out the ground corn, packing it into a bowl to make masa for our tortillas.
From there Irma and I headed to the most gorgeous house, with a dreamy huge kitchen, where Sara and Kay were waiting for us. We all donned frilly aprons and started chopping, cooking up the salsas, guacamole, the chicken, and chorizo before really getting into making the tortillas.
This cooking class in San Cristobal was wonderfully hands-on, and our instructor, Irma, spoke just enough English that we could understand everything (in combination with our crappy Spanish skills). She answered all of our questions very patiently and giggled with us every time we screwed up putting our tortillas on the comal (it’s harder than it looks!)
We ended up with a huge feast, far more than we could all eat (especially because we’d been sampling our creations throughout the class) so Irma took the remainder home for her son.
You could take another cooking class in San Cristobal at Instituto Jovel too: they offer one with three kinds of stuffed chiles, or mole sauces, or another with a pork dish. And I’m sure if there’s something specific you wanted to learn you could probably ask and they’d arrange it! If I lived in San Cristobal or was staying longer I probably would have done them all!
So next time you’re in San Cristobal de las Casas, head to Instituto Jovel and learn to cook some delicious, authentic Mexican food!
Have you ever taken a cooking class while traveling? Where did you do it? What did you make? Would you do it again?
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