Cooking in Mexico City: the makings of a one-of-a-kind culinary tour

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At ToursByLocals, we love it when guides get creative with their tour offerings. Tango classes, shopping trips to the local market, private piano concertos – these sorts of unique local experiences make for the best trip stories once a traveler returns home again.

Today we’re interviewing a particularly creative guide: our Belgium-turned-Mexico City-Guide, Jonas who has recently devoted much time and energy to creating a thoughtful and exciting new culinary tour of Mexico City. The tour – the first of its kind in Mexico – aims to give travelers an in-depth look at a traditional neighbourhood, while also getting a hands-on introduction to authentic Mexican cooking. Jonas is passionate about urban communities and cultural exchange, and this passion is apparent in all of his tour offerings – but this one in particular.

TBL: Jonas, before I ask you to tell us more about the culinary tour you’ve created, I want to know: what is your favourite Mexican meal?

Jonas: Mexican food is above all about creating simple, tasty, honest dishes with straight-forward, fresh ingredients. It is totally the opposite of what is marketed as Mexican food in restaurants abroad, inspired by Tex-Mex. That's why my favourite meals are surprisingly easy to prepare (luckily for my students!) One of the best examples are chilaquiles: basically fresh tortilla chips soaking in a spicy tomato stock sauce, with a topping of onion, sour cream and cilantro. And if they can be accompanied by some frijoles charros (black bean soup with several types of meat), I go wild. If someone wants to learn something more sophisticated, chiles en nogada is one of my favourites. The stuffed green poblano chillies are covered with a white nutty cream sauce and red pomegranate kernels; the colours of the meal made it into a national dish, very popular in September, when National Independence Day is celebrated.

TBL: You grew up in Belgium: how have you become so knowledgeable about Mexican food?

Jonas: After a first stay in Mexico in 1999 and 2000, I went back to my home country, Belgium, although I had fallen in love with Mexico's culture and kitchen. After some years I was followed by my Mexican girlfriend (now wife), who was working on a PhD dissertation in Europe. In order for her to get by, we started organizing Mexican cooking classes for friends. Soon they were a big success, partly because the recipes came directly from my mother-in-law, a great cook of traditional Mexican dishes. Until my wife started working in a formal job, she was able to make a living from the classes and even pay a visit per year to her parents in Mexico. I have always liked cooking and experimenting, and soon I was as good a Mexican cook as she was. To learn the basics, I also took a two-years cooking course in Belgian and European gastronomy. My basic degrees as an agronomist and anthropologist enabled me to deepen my knowledge on the origins of food and its cultural meaning.

TBL: What made you decide to put together an intensive culinary experience tour?

Jonas: Since I began guiding in Mexico City in 2008, my focus has been on urban cultural tours. I started to scratch the surface with my visitors, visiting markets, sampling street food and taking them to meet traditional farmers and producers that survive near the urban sprawl. I put a lot of focus on how many typical Mexican dishes and products are products of the particular pre-Hispanic roots and the colonial history of the country. Soon, I realised people wanted more than just to hear about nuns inventing mouth-watering recipes in convents, or touching exotic fruits and sampling "mole" sauces at markets. They wanted to get their hands dirty and experiment themselves! So I wanted to take them to a kitchen to share my love for Mexican cuisine. But my own kitchen was too small, even to host small groups.

TBL: Tell us about the space you plan to use for the cooking class.

Jonas: I am so excited about this! It took me a long time to find. After months of looking around in the city center, I started screening less obvious parts of the city with good markets, such as Coyoacán and Tlalpan. It's a lovely neighbourhood with a colonial feeling and an interesting history, but too small and too far from the center to be visited often by foreign tourists. A local friend introduced me to Miguel Angel, the owner of a blown glass workshop with an annex kitchen and restaurant. When I arrived, the place was a mess, because they were renewing the glass oven and the restaurant was in renovation. But I immediately fell in love with the workshop: the warm Mexican colours, the odd glass creations scattered around, the roomy cabaña-like kitchen, and above all the informal enthusiasm of the owner made me feel at home.

I knew this was the place to start my culinary tour and workshop. The charm and history of the neighbourhood enables me to give a sense-of-place to the visitors that want to visit an off-the-beaten-track part of the city; its 120-years old market, with most ladies attending clients for about 40 years, is a perfect place to get an introduction on what to order and how to buy food when you are traveling through Mexico; and the kitchen is part of a real Mexican collective project run with heart and soul. It is the perfect setting to become acquainted with Mexican recipes and understand why the way to a Mexican's heart is through the stomach.

Thank you so much, Jonas, for articulating the passion and history behind this creative project. We can’t wait to hear feedback from the travelers who book this tour with you.
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