“Corta la cebolla. No, no, no, más pequeña, like this…” At this point the woman took back her knife and performed a swift and neat dissection of the onion.
“Sí”, I responded nervously, chucking the perfectly diced onion into the frying pan as instructed before continuing with the fast-becoming-daunting task of chopping the rest of the vegetables.
The heat didn’t help. Looking around at my fellow kitchen companions, all of them dripping with sweat and taking regular swigs of chilled iced tea, I could see that I wasn’t the only one feeling the burn of the Mexican sun.
We kept at it though – chopping, whisking, peeling, all of it – despite waning energy, because as we were sweating away we were building up an appetite, and Chiles en nogada are something you want to be hungry for. The look in the eyes of our usually feisty and fiery Mexican cookery teacher told it all. As she was describing this dish, this homage to Mexico with its colours of the flag and flavours of the sun, her eyes mellowed and I could instantly tell that I was about to taste not just a dish, but a piece of history.
In August 1821, Agustín de Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba, granting Mexico its independence after a long and bloody war. On his later journey down to Mexico City he stopped in the town of Puebla, where a feast was given to celebrate the country’s new found independence. The town’s nuns offered Agustín a new dish: Chiles en nogada. Fruity mince had been tucked into a mild poblano pepper and a creamy walnut sauce blanketed it all. Jewel-like pomegranate seeds adorned the white canvas: the red, white and green components of the dish all symbolising Mexico’s pride for its new flag and independence.
Grand historical value aside, this dish proved to be a bit of a faff to recreate in this tiny, sweltering kitchen. To my left was a sweaty Texan attempting to peel walnuts and becoming so flustered by our teacher’s demands that it seemed only a matter of time before he threw down his knife and charged out of the room. Huddled around the stove were another couple of native Mexicans arguing about whether banana was an essential ingredient to the fruity mince. The debate was concluded by the shouts of the feisty teacher who insisted that it was her recipe and banana was “¡Muy importante!”
I observed all of this through onion induced tears. It was a strange situation, being in the midst of a cookery class in Mexico, learning how to cook a dish so traditional yet so unknown outside of the country. However, it only took one sight of our jewel adorned Chiles en Nogada to let me know it was all worth it. The perspiring Texan had managed to see the ordeal through, the two Mexican foodies had calmed down and our teacher was smiling. She was given the privilege of the first taste… and the verdict?
“Perfecto.” Of course.