Foodie David Jenison explores cooking classes in Latin America and finds a few savory surprises like iguana stew.
SE Asia might be the leader in tourist cooking classes, but Latin America is spicing up the competition. From Mexico to Argentina, classes are popping up everywhere to help travelers pair that Don Julio bottle with something other than tacos and nachos.
Wine-store junkies know Mendoza for its sterling Malbec, but Argentine wine country is also a culinary capital with two exceptional classes. Ampora, known for its high-end bodega tours, hosts a four-hour class in the owner’s oversized kitchen where students drink free-flowing wine and learn to make meat empanadas from scratch. Man does not live on empanadas alone, so Chef Laura Pinna also teaches how to make chimichurri sauce, humita en chala (creamed-corn tamale baked in its own husk) and mini-pie desserts; and demonstrates how to cook those famous Argentine steaks.
Ampora’s competition, Cooking Class by Cristina Brino, offers a similar lineup of empanadas, chimichurri and steak with lots of wine. Located outside town at Finca Adalgisa, Cristina’s two-hour course is more of a cooking demonstration than a hands-on experience, but it is still wildly popular. While both of these classes are pricey ($100+), Laura and Cristina each learned their chops under Francis Mallman (1884, Patagonia Sur), arguably Argentina’s most famous chef.
Up in volcano-happy Guatemala, colonial Antigua has two popular classes, La Mesa and Frijol Feliz, though the latter is the more reliable operation. The “Happy Bean” costs $45 per person and includes several free alcoholic drinks, which is just what a New Yorker needs at nine in the morning. Frijol’s most popular dish is Pepian, a traditional meat-and-vegetable stew, though making tamales is more challenging. As in many Latin American countries, the Guatemalan tamale has a moister consistency and comes in a large plantain-leaf pouch. For something akin to Mexican tamales, opt for the Chuchitos, which are firm tamales served in cornhusks. The chef, who uses a Spanish translator, also teaches sides, sauces and desserts, including options for tortillas and mole.
Want to learn a dish you’ll never cook at home but makes for a good story? Check out Nicasi Tours in Nicaragua for a class that will have PETA asking Facebook for a “Dislike” button. Though no cruelty is involved, it’s hard not to feel guilty about making iguana soup, a longtime staple in the Nicaraguan diet. The teacher handles the worst part (i.e. taking out the iguana), but the students must remove the head, feet, skin and tail, and yes, the tail continues to wiggle after it’s severed. (This disturbing process should be mandatory for anyone who buys lizard- and gator-skin shoes.) The iguana meat is then stewed with several vegetables, and it predictably tastes a bit like chicken.
For those squeamish about iguana, the Leon-based company also teaches Indio Viejo, but this traditional dish also gives reason to squirm. According to the Nicasi guide, this pre-Colombian meal got its name when colonists arrived and the local tribesmen were culturally obligated to feed them. To get out of it, they offered their guests Indio Viejo, or “Old Indian,” saying the stew was made with chunks of meat from a recently deceased tribesman. The colonists opted to starve, and the stew supposedly found its new name. Various meats can be used in the dish, but fret not, it’s more beef and chicken than Cherokee.
A big country like Mexico naturally has several cooking courses. Located 45 minutes from Oaxaca, Seasons of My Heart features classes by chef Susana Trilling, host of the PBS series Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey Through Oaxaca, Mexico. Bela’s Bed & Breakfast in San Cristobal de las Casas offers informal classes for those who speak some Spanish, but the serious kitchen commando will love Mesón Sacristía de Capuchinas in Puebla. The boutique hotel offers a seven-day all-inclusive package that features 15 hours of English- or Spanish-language classes.
This writer just happened to be in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica when Rocking J’s hammock hostel made its first attempt at a cooking class. RJ’s restaurant manager taught over a dozen backpackers how to make sushi rolls. Sure, that’s not exactly a traditional dish and the chef was about as organized as an MF Global accountant, but it was a big success and everyone learned to make rolls with surprising ease. More classes will surely follow.
Cooking classes are also catching on in the States with places like Schnucks Cooks in Missouri, Ayesha’s Kitchen in Miami and First Class Cooking in San Francisco. Even ‘wichcraft NYC now has gourmet-sandwich classes in its West Chelsea location. Still, Epitourean.com seems to lead the country in culinary vacations. This Denver-based company has cooking tours in all 50 states, from safari-style classes in Hawaii to sailing and lobster rolls in Maine. Likewise, its sister site CookingVacations.com offers global culinary adventures in countries like France, Italy, Greece, Jamaica, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad & Tobago and Peru. Their 10-day Turkey trip includes lessons in Kusadasi (a.k.a. Ephesus), Cappadocia and Istanbul (enjoy those Blue Mosque wake-up calls), while shorter Canadian options include a master class in Ottawa, wine pairing in Niagara-on-the-Lake and fondue in a Rocky Mountains castle! They even have culinary cruises between Barcelona, Rome and Athens.
There are many ways to experience a country’s culture, but cooking classes allow travelers to bring a little culture back home. Moreover, the next time the neighbor brags about her five-star lasagna, feel free to say you just made shrimp-and-cheese empanadas from scratch. You won’t even have to say “checkmate.”