I had an entirely different kind of adventure this week, courtesy of Adventures-Mexico (www.adventures-mexico.com) a Merida based tours service. I was invited to join a Merida cooking class, which, needless to say, I jumped at. Who doesn’t love a cooking class, especially one that involves wandering around the market gorging on all the delicious local foods before we even consider cooking for ourselves?
I was a little self-conscious at first. Being on a tour in a city that now feels so much like home was weird. I had to contain myself a few times when the others asked questions, or when market sellers assumed no one spoke Spanish or knew much about Mexico. But then, slowly, I embraced the freedom that acting like a tourist can bring and began to take photos with complete abandon. I have more market photos from today than any other trip there. I hope you enjoy them!
Suri was our guide and she took us on a comprehensive tour of Lucas de Galvez market, the main market in Merida where she plied us with tamales, salbutes, juice, chicharrones, castacan, cow udder (sadly I can’t remember the Spanish for this although since I’ll not be ordering it again I guess it doesn’t matter much) and a variety of different fruits.
In case you don’t recognise any of the foods I merrily listed, here’s a cheat sheet for you:
Tamales: traditional Mexican food. It’s steamed corn dough (masa) in a banana leaf. Personally I do not like these one bit but I still try them every time they’re on offer for two reasons. 1. they’re food wrapped in banana leaf so they ought to be awesome. 2. I always hope I’ll like them. I never do.
Salbutes: a fried tortilla with pulled turkey (or other meat) and a variety of veg type bits. Scrummy every time and even scrummier when someone, such as Suri, buys them from her favourite stand for you.
Chicharrones: basically pig crackling but lighter and easier on the teeth. It’s yum and easy to find in a totally sanitised form in the supermarket if you don’t fancy purchasing it from the market. A quintisential Yucatan snack.
Castacan: pork belly. No need to say more. It tastes as good as it sounds.
Cow udder: yeah. Cow udder. It taste rubbery. Am I glad I tried it? Not especially but given the other shit I’ve tried in my life I figured this wasn’t going to be the worst. I was right, not the worst but certainly not something I even need to eat again. And it looked better than the cow lung that was right next door to it.
Once Suri had plied us with deliciousness and made me wonder how I’d ever have any desire for lunch, we started talking lunch. We were in the market to buy ingredients for our feast of: chaya empanadas, pollo pibil (chicken in a delicious veg sauce) and dulce de papaya. As we edged our way through the busy market, Suri gave us a quick run down on the ingredients and various spices, Nothing was new for me, but that’s because I’ve been in Mexico a fair old while now. For newbies to the country, there was plenty to learn about and try such as chaya (a local, and delicious, green leaf like spinach), quesillo (a cheese from Oaxaca that is incredibly delicious and also very silly because it is stringy like cheese strings in England), and masa (corn dough used as the base of most taco/tortilla type things).
We tried some fruits I hadn’t eaten before: mamay, zapote and one other I can’t name. They were all delicious so I bought some to take home for my kids. I don’t think I’d have tried them had Suri not offered me the opportunity to do so.
And then we took a bus back to Suri’s mum’s house. It isn’t a family business, it just happens that Suri and her mum both work for the same company. The bus took about twenty minutes and my recommendation is to be the person who sits next to Suri. She speaks perfect English and is really welcoming and open. I truly enjoyed talking to her about anything and everything as the bus meandered its way to the north of the city. Also, ensure you sit next to an open window as there’s no air-con on local buses!
Once at our destination the bags were emptied out on the table while we guzzled water and donned aprons. Then it was down to business. We began with pudding (dessert to any non Brits). We made dulce de papaya. Honestly, I can’t stand papaya. have learned to eat it as I’ve lived in a number of countries where it’s abundant and cheap but I don’t think I’ll even enjoy it unless it’s laced with lime or something else that masks its flavour entirely. That said, this was laced with sherry, which definitely made it edible! The others on the course genuinely seemed to like it.
While the papaya was cooking we moved on to making the salsas. We made a tomato salsa (actually, Sara, Suri’s mum made that), an extremely hot, yet delicious, chili salsa, my favourite pickled onion salsa, and, obviously, a guacamole. I wasn’t involved in salsa making beyond chopping but I can vouch that all were delicious. While three of the group were making salsas, two of us were busy peeling (is it weird that I wrote de-skinning first?) sour oranges. Turns out that it is harder than it looks. We were given one instruction: to leave the pith on. I failed. My ‘punishment’ was that I was then asked to squeeze all the oranges so I could see why the pith needed to be left on.
And yeah, now I see: if the pith is on it’s easy to squeeze without the orange just falling apart and juice going all over you instead of in the bowl. Ho hum. Lesson learned. I also learned that sour oranges are bitter if the juice touches the skin but only sour if it doesn’t touch said skin. Good huh? Also, the oranges are good rubbed on bruises. So maybe my dad wasn’t quite as mad as I thought when he tried to use them as natural mosquito repellent?
Once the juice was poured over the chopped onion to make the pickled onion salsa, we moved on to making the main course: chicken in banana leaves. Apparently a very traditional Yucatan dish, and very, very scrummy.
My favourite part of the course was making (oh, ok, it was eating) the empanadas. I was a little nervous as I’ve worked with masa before and failed so I was keen to do a better job this time. Thankfully I managed and between us all we made several of the tastiest empanadas I’ve ever had.
My only complaint would be a lack of banter during the cooking process but that was probably more to do with me being the only native English speaker than anything else. Suri speaks great English but was busy ensuring everything ran smoothly. Sara speaks no English; she was very informative when asked a direct question but didn’t interact much otherwise. I enjoyed chatting to her in Spanish after we’d finished but the others in the group didn’t speak Spanish so we were stuck with English as the common language. Had I been with a friend (or, shock horror, my husband), I’d have been able to have a bit more banter in English or Spanish and it would have been more fun.
Once the food was ready, we sat down to devour. Honestly, with seven pairs of hands in the kitchen, it felt as if we’d done no work at all to produce such a delicious meal. I am sure that Sara was quietly working hard to ensure everything turned out well but we definitely got to take part in everything and we were all perfectly happy to eat the results. It was a shame that Suri and Sara didn’t join us to eat (Suri did sit and chat) but I do understand that 1pm just isn’t a time that Mexicans want to eat. It’s too close to their second breakfast at 11am and too far from actual lunch at 4pm to be a sensible time for them to eat.
After a delicious meal, ubers were ordered for everyone. I’ve never taken an uber before so that was a new experience for me, too.
Disclosure: I was invited to take this class in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.