Culinary Schools Bring Tourists Past Mexico's Heart -- Into Its Stomach

More and more travelers are cooking up culinary experiences for their vacations. Culinary travel is about more than merely tasting — adventurers want to understand cultivation, explore marketplaces and learn to cook the dishes that once seemed exotic and mysterious.

Mexico, a food lovers' wonderland, is ahead of the curve with culinary schools throughout the country, offering packages that run from one-day to weeklong certificate programs.

The history and cultural evolution of Mexico can be traced through its culinary tradition. Yucatan-style food is marked by Mayan influence, and today pits are still dug to slow-roast meats with orange juice and achiote (annatto) seed. The Zapotecs of Oaxaca still brew mezcal as they did more than 2,000 years ago — when priests used the ceremonial drink to heighten their senses, and gave it to sacrificial victims to lessen theirs.

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And the macabre Aztec-influenced holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated with maize cakes and chocolate atole.

The charming colonial city of San Miguel de Allende has a culinary school, Sazon, which teaches local dishes, along with cooking classes inspired by various regions in Mexico.

Even if you think you know Mexican food — whether you frequent high-end restaurants or are a taqueria aficionada — these courses will be humbling.

Chef Paco Cárdenas led the Market Tour Course. He brought students to the nearby public fruit and vegetable market where the locals buy their groceries.

His first stop was at Dona Lolita's stand. She vends campote en dulce, sweet potatoes baked in brown sugar, along with gordita de pinole — blue corn powder mixed with sugar and anise, and pipiano, a little ball of ground ancho chili and pumpkin seeds to make a seasonal mole. No taco shells or margarita salt in site.

The tour moved on through the piles of produce, with Cárdenas the fearless leader; he bought bags of fresh chickpeas marinated with lime and chili for everyone to taste. He encouraged visitors to sniff the fragrant herb epazote, and purchased bags of cactus parts — the paddles known as nopales, and their fruits, prickly pears, to use later.

One of the students, Mel Abrams, 65, of Chicago is one of Cárdenas' biggest fans. "I've taken his class before, and he lets me go to his café, Petit Four, at five a.m. and help bake," he said.

Cárdenas' students are a special breed of tourist: the gourmands, the curious and the educators.

Back in the kitchen, Stephanie and Anthony Burroughs of Dallas, Texas, were busy taking notes. Explaining why they were in the class, Stephanie said, "We're newly married. He's a foodie, so I have to learn to cook."

Cárdenas discussed the difference in flavor between the pasilla chili, with its chocolaty undertones, and the smokey flavored mora chili. Students sipped hibiscus tea as he julienned the cactus paddles and then sautéed them with pipiano and chicken stock. Students quickly learned that "Oh, my God" said three times in a row by Cardenas meant the dish was going to be really good.

Cárdenas demystified the prickly pear as he mixed it with mora chile in a molcajete, or stone bowl, for a salsa. While small boats of masa dough cooked on a griddle, Cárdenas taught how to make a traditional ranchera salsa.

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