When you think about eating in Cancun, do you imagine only tourist taco menus and Mexican party bars? I know I did. But that was before I signed up for a cooking class that opened my eyes to the vibrant food traditions thriving in this Mexican resort town.
Chef Claudia Garcia Ramos and her husband, Lorenzo, host “Can Cook in Cancun” classes in their home near downtown Cancun. I joined a dozen other aspiring cooks for a day-long culinary experience celebrating the traditional foods of the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. We arrived in a downpour and gathered on their large, covered patio where a ceramic pot of hot Mexican coffee awaited us.
Called “café de olla,” the coffee is made by steeping strong, ground beans with cinnamon and piloncillo (the dark cane sugar formed into a cone.) Lorenzo ladled the strained, sweet, steaming brew into mugs for us.
As the rain continued to pour, we enjoyed the rich coffee with freshly made churros.
And we met another member of the family, who is also a fan of churros.
When we were dried out and warmed through by the café de olla, Chef Claudia welcomed us into her professional kitchen theater. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Mexico City, Chef Claudia has made Cancun her home for over a decade. She is passionate about authentic Mexican cuisine.
Before she began to cook, Chef Claudia gave us a brief history and overview of the regional cuisines of Mexico, plus a bit of tortilla trivia. To wit: the Spaniards brought the Moorish technique of making flatbread to Mexico. In central and southern regions, the indigenous people of Mexico grew corn. And in northern Mexico, they grew wheat. That’s why the Mexican tortilla tradition includes both corn and flour varieties.
While we finished our Mexican culinary history lesson, Chef Claudia’s three assistants assembled ingredients for our first cooking exercise. A variety of tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic had been blackening on a “comal,” which is type of flat griddle used for dry roasting. We used these roasted vegetables, combined with other fresh ingredients, to prepare five varieties of salsas and pico de gallo, including a spectacular green tomatillo and avocado salsa and a tangy roasted red salsa.
We tasted salsas and sampled platters full of fresh Mexican fruits, washing it all down with hibiscus tea and cerveza.
Then we moved on to preparing the main dishes for our afternoon feast. Our first course was lime soup with onions, garlic and shredded chicken.
Chef Claudia’s assistants also prepared “cochinita pibil,” which is a regional Yucatán specialty of slow roasted pork in a rich marinade made with the juices of oranges, lemons and limes. But the highlight of the Day of the Dead feast was a dish called “mucbipollo,” which is essentially a breaded meatloaf that is wrapped and baked in a banana leaf.
We baked our mucbipollo in the oven. But Claudia’s assistants told us that their families had different customs.
One remembered taking the banana leaf bundle to a local bakery to cook in a communal oven. Another recalled her father’s practice of burying the mucbipollo in an earth oven filled with hot stones.
When we finished cooking, we returned to the covered patio for a taste of tequila. We laughed and compared notes on the dishes we had prepared. As we finally sat down to share our Day of the Dead feast, the sun was just beginning to peek through the rainy-day clouds.
If You Go
“Can Cook in Cancun” classes are offered weekly on Wednesday and Thursday. The cost for a full-day class is $115, with a 50% deposit due at the time of booking. Reservations can be made online several months in advance. (Check before your trip to make sure your class size has met the minimum number of participants.) Lorenzo handles confirmation and can arrange reasonable and convenient transportation from the Cancun hotel zone for about $15 per person.
A version of this post was previously published on May 24, 2016 in The Culinary Travel Guide as “Cooking in Cancun and Cabo San Lucas: Two Foodie Finds in Mexican Resort Towns.”