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.

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.

Dorothy Connor, a retired special education teacher from Kansas City, said that she used a lot of cooking and baking exercises to teach math classes. She had been traveling to San Miguel de Allende for years. She has taken some of Cárdenas' tips and recipes back home and used them when teaching children at a culinary center.

"It's a great portal to learn about other cultures," she explained. "The natural history, the culture — it's all right here in a delicious salsa."

Sazon used to be independently owned but it was acquired a few years ago by the luxury hotel Casa de Sierra Nevada. They hired Kirsten West to manage it. She explained how she arrived there: "I grew up in Germany where we studied Mexico as one of the great civilizations of the world. So I visited, and it was love at first bite."

West has worked with such Mexican food luminaries as Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy and Patricia Quintana. She found the charms of San Miguel de Allende irresistible, and so she now runs Sazon.

Private cooking lessons and courses in entertaining, San Miguel de Allende-style, are taught by Chef Gonzalo Martinez, a native of the city and executive chef of Casa de Sierra Nevada kitchens. Learn to make a mango terrine, cuitlacoche (truffle like corn fungus) soup, or a duck and corn tamale with this up-and-coming talent.

Along with learning about the local fares, Sazon has a regional Cuisines of Mexico series. The Mexico City session covers ceviche, raw fish marinated in limejuice, and explains why it is from a region so far from the sea.

As Chef Fernando Padilla told it, the Aztecs had runners relay fish from the sea all the way to Tenochtitlan, the capital of their kingdom, the present day site of Mexico City. "The runners were so fast that it's said some of the fish were still alive when they arrived," he said.

A class that focuses on the city of Puebla deconstructs mole, and the Vera Cruz session includes the culinary influences in this Caribbean port.

After so much learning comes your authentic, de-mystified, delicious lunch.

If You Go

Explore the various regions of Mexico through these culinary schools.

Sazon Correo # 22, San Miguel de Allende, Gto, Mexico. Tel: +52 (415) 154-7671 Email:

Located in the heart of the colonial gem, San Miguel de Allende, Sazon offers group classes that range from Market Tours to Regional Cuisines of Mexico Series, and San Miguel de Allende Traditional Home Cooking. These classes range from $49-$60. They also have a guest chef series, and packages available through Casa de Sierra Nevada (

Cocinar Mexicano 425 Riverside Drive - 14H New York, NY 10025 Tel: 212 655 4432 Email:

Spend a week in the beautiful mountain town of Tepoztlán learning from both top chefs and local village women. Specialty workshops include Day of the Dead and Christmas fare. Cultural excursions and opportunities for chefs to study with some of the Mexican masters are also available. Five- to seven-day stays cost between $2,495 and $2,895.00. Most include accommodations and round-trip travel between Mexico City and Tepoztlán. They also offer occasional gastronomic vacation packages to other cities.

Mesones Sacristia 6 Sur 304. Callejón de los Sapos Tel: 01 (800) 712-40-28 Email: sacristí

Learn to make mole Poblano and chalupas in the gastronomic wonderland of Puebla. Classes at the hotel Mesón Sacristía de Capuchinas range from one-day courses of $65 to the weeklong complete Mexican Cooking Course for $1,500.00.

Los Dos Cooking School Calle 68 No. 517 Mérida, Yucatán 97000 México Telephone in the U.S.: 212.400.1642

Los Dos Cooking School and Guesthouse in Mérida specializes in foods of the Yucatán and Mayan cooking techniques. One-day workshops start at $75. Check the website for class schedules, as they change with the seasons. Contact them for information on three-day, one-week and group packages.

Seasons of My Heart Susana Trilling, Directora Seasons of My Heart Cooking School Rancho Aurora, AP#42 Admon.3 Oaxaca, 68101, Mexico Tel:, Email:

This well-established culinary school in Oaxaca leads mushroom picking forays, teaches intensives on chocolate, an Oaxacan specialty, and offers regional culinary tours throughout areas of interest in Mexico. Prices range from $50 for a half-day class to $2,500 for the Vera Cruz Vanilla tour.