Marilau Ricaud greets my grown niece Kelly and me and invites us into her kitchen, just down a cobblestone street in a sleepy neighborhood in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
We signed up for a three-hour class at the Mexican Ancestry Cooking School in Marilau to learn how to make tamales. We’re also eager to learn more about Mexican traditions and why these beautifully packaged creations are such an important part of the culture, especially during the holidays.
For over three decades, Marilau has been teaching people around the world how to create traditional Mexican flavors in San Miguel de Allende. Step into her kitchen and I feel her love for her craft and her heritage.
A DAY WITHOUT CHILI
Copper pots, peppers and ceramic bowls require every centimeter of wall space from the counter to the ceiling, and the essence of fresh produce saturates the air. The plaque next to the stove reads: “Un dia sin Chile es Como un dia sin sol”. A day without Chile is like a day without the sun.
The familiar smells and clear workspace transport me back to the kitchen of my childhood home in small western Kansas. This is where my mother spent most of her day cooking, baking and canning. Although there are differences between our cultures, many things – family, kitchen, home – are the same.
Marilau points to a pitcher and two brown ceramic cups and says Agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea) with a fruity flavor and a hint of cinnamon. With a hand, she brushes aside short salt-and-pepper hair, quickly pulls on her apron, and announces in perfect English, “Okay, let’s get started.”
MAKING TAMALES TOGETHER
We jump right in and start making tamales with the dough. Kelly and I take turns putting lard (“always lard, never olive oil”), salt, baking soda, cornmeal, and chicken stock into the Kitchen Aid blender, with Marilau watching closely.
He explains that in his culture, people eat the most tamales during Fiestas Padres in September, the celebration of Mexican independence, and ten days before Christmas.
When it’s time to squeeze the water out of the cold-soaked peels, Marilau introduces and says: “It’s like doing laundry. You have to squeeze the water out.
FOCUSING ON TAMALES
Soup is also on the menu today (before class, students choose what they want to make), although Kelly and I both agree that it’s tamales.
When we cut the ends off the zucchini, Marilau says: “Soup is easy. But be careful. The blades are sharp.
Kelly takes frantic notes to capture Marilau’s every word. In fact, Kelly is the family cook. When we get together for dinner, it’s my job to bring the wine, set the table, and clean up.
Sometimes I manage to mash potatoes. Still, I love being in the kitchen with my sister, niece, and nephew amidst the sweet commotion of making Christmas dinner.
And today I want to absorb a fraction of Marilau’s skills and each of her stories.
MARILAU: ENTREPRENEUR AND TEACHER
This amazing woman and entrepreneur has taught thousands of people since 1989, including chefs, culinary professionals, groups and families.
Most of his students are from the US or Canada, but he has also tutored people from Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. He even traveled to Dallas to teach a larger class.
All kinds of chili peppers
Next, it’s time to prepare two types of sauces: red and green. Marilau talks about different peppers: serrano, poblano, jalapeño, habanero and shows them on a map.
“You have to respect the flavor of the chili,” he says. “Never make salsa with two fresh chili peppers.
For the salsa verde, we chop and slice the cilantro, tomatillos, serrano peppers and onion, which we put directly in the blender and then pour the mixture into a pot on the stove. We repeat the red sauce process using tomatoes instead of tomatoes.
Marilau shows us how to wrap the ingredients in a crust, using about a third of a cup of dough, followed by a small portion of the chicken she cooked before we arrived, and the sauce.
“Mexican culture is based on corn,” she says. “It’s not about protein. You have to add a lot of batter and a small amount of chicken. People may not always have chicken, but they always have corn.”
Stuffing and catching these little beauties isn’t as easy as it sounds and requires another introduction. Our patient teacher will show us again. “You have to be nice,” she says, holding the tamale tenderly. Kelly gets a nod of approval, then she looks at me and says, “Okay, Auntie. Your turn.’
Together we roll up twenty tamales, which they steam for 45 minutes. More time is enough, but no less, advises Marilau. She suggests taking a break while the tamales steam.
WHEN PATTAS AND PASTOS SPEAK
“Oh, if these walls could talk,” Marilau replies with a laugh. “And if pots and pans could talk, we’d actually be hearing stories!”
Some pans have darkened from the bottom, she explains, because her mother or grandmother used them to cook over an open fire. Her ancestors also passed on cherished recipes, a love of Mexican cuisine, and a respect for the culture.
THE POWER OF TAMA’S TASTE
Marilau doesn’t publish a cookbook because, according to her, it’s not about recipes, but about technique. She tells the story that tears flowed down the cheeks of a number of students when they tasted what they had prepared.
“They are people from this country who have moved”, adds Marilau, “but they miss their grandmother or deceased aunt who cooked for them, the taste”.
We could hear stories of her all day, but the three hours are almost up and it’s time to taste the fruits of our labor (well… the fruits of Kelly and Marilau’s efforts, but I stirred the soup).
Sitting around the long wooden table and eating together becomes my favorite part of the class, not because of the expected tasty meal, but because of the opportunity to learn more about each other.
I ask what’s on the table besides tamales for her family’s Christmas dinner.
“Turkey. But it’s done the Mexican way,” laughs Marilau. “With chili!”
IF YOU GO
Due to COVID-19 guidelines, Marilau only holds classes for family members or friends who know each other. To return to the United States, travelers must present a negative COVID test upon departure from Mexico.
Visit Mexican Ancestry Cooking School to connect with Marilau. The cost of a three-hour lesson is approximately US$130; Marilau only accepts payments in Mexican pesos on the day of class.
San Miguel de Allende was ranked No. 1 in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards 2021 list of Best Cities 2021.
For more information, log on to VisitMexico.
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