Chef of the Week: Lucia de la Barra
Meet Lucia de la Barra, teacher of Mexican food history and fantastic Traveling Spoon cook from San Angel, a residential neighborhood in Mexico City.
If you want a truly authentic Mexican cuisine experience, coupled with a history lesson in Mexican gastronomy, make sure to book one of her private cooking classes.
Where does your passion for cuisine come from?
I really cannot say from where or when my passion for cuisine emerged. I believe it began without me having sought it.
At home my mom always cooked; she used to do it very well and she would always ask us for help, especially when we had guests.
Unconsciously, I learnt how to cook. It was lovely to treat our guests to good food. When I was older and my boyfriend visited me, I rejoiced from just thinking what to cook for him and then achieving its perfection.
Every single one of those days, my dad asked if Fernando was going to come by so he could wait and also eat the special supper.
You have earned two culinary school degrees. What were your goals and aspirations?
When I finished high school and wanted to choose my bachelor’s degree in something linked to cuisine, there wasn´t anything appealing during those times in Mexico. Therefore, I opted for history, which I also liked very much.
Today I believe that I was very lucky since, a few years after I finished my degree, I had the opportunity to take a certificate in History of Religion Through Gastronomy.
I never thought that I was going to enjoy it so much and, shortly after I finished it, I was invited to join another one, Mexican History Seen from Its Diet. I had finally encountered my real passion.
When I finished both certificates, Tec de Monterrey High School campus, Mexico City, asked me to give some courses on religions and gastronomy.
However, it was time for me to get more technical preparation, so I decided to take a specialization in gastronomy to be better equipped for teaching in universities.
Little did I know that I would have to take a master’s degree. I enrolled in a Master’s in Mexican History at UNAM and, obviously, all the research work I did during those years, was on Mexican gastronomy. In Mexico, there didn’t exist such thing as a Master´s in Mexican history and its cuisine.
While I was trying to obtain my master’s degree, a group of friends proposed a monthly reunion to cook together, with me teaching them cuisine from foreign countries. We did it for many months and everybody enjoyed it.
Those classes gave me expertise for my future ones the following years at Universidad Anahuac and CESSA (Centre of Superior Studies of San Angel); they were divided into theory and practice. Thus, I discovered a new method and a different kind of perspective for approaching the history of different civilizations.
Do you recommend a formal training for someone who wants to become a chef?
I do believe that academic training is important, as in every other field, although I’m absolutely certain that cuisine is learnt in the kitchen.
There are magnificent chefs or mayoras, as we call the great women cooks in Mexico. They didn’t study at all but they know a lot more than many people coming from the best schools.
I think that having a bachelor’s degree doesn’t entitle you to be called chef. To become a chef, much experience is required since it’s not only a matter of knowing how to make a good soup, but of having control of your kitchen, of knowing how to command it, of being able to work under pressure; plan menus, shop, and many more things that only practice will provide.
Please tell us a bit about your work and why teaching gastronomic history is important to preserving and developing Mexican cuisine?
The history of every civilization began from the moment its people settled in a specific place. Every civilization started developing the minute the crops they could produce or that already existed signaled its birth.
The culture and identity of different peoples stem from here. Therefore, studying history is important to understand the whole culture and gastronomy of a particular civilization.
Specifically, Mesoamericans settled in very rich territories with a mild climate, surrounded by rivers, lakes, and some close to oceans. This made them apt for agriculture and exuberant flora and fauna. Hence, their gastronomy was very varied; it is what conquered the Spanish when they arrived.
For the Mesoamericans, corn was not only a nourishment but also a god. This god accompanied every human being from the day he or she was born until the rest of his or her life. This god marked, according to when it was sowed and harvested, the seasons of the year and many festivities.
We can find an example of its paramount importance in the Popol Vuh, a sacred text of the Mayas, that speaks about man’s creation. The Popol Vuh says that the gods decided to create creatures who would worship them and make offerings; in that way the gods would be able to survive. In a first attempt, the gods created four-legged animals and birds.
Since these couldn’t talk, they created a mud creature but that one dissolved if wet, so they made a third attempt in which they created wooden men, but these weren’t able to think. At last, in a fourth attempt, they achieved their purpose by creating man, a man of corn.
These men were so perfect that they could access everything, beyond time and space, just like the gods. Since the gods couldn’t accept that, they decided to cloud man’s vision so he could only see the very day he was living. This is how the creation of the whole humanity, which now inhabits Earth, took place. This is just an example to explain why it is impossible to understand the traditions and gastronomy in Mesoamerica without acknowledging the importance of corn. The same things happen with other ingredients like cacao.
During the Conquest, the conquerors not only wanted more territory but also everything that could be found there, which flabbergasted them. In their letters to the kings, the conquerors described the richness they had found, so Felipe II decided to send Francisco Hernandez with the sole purpose of carrying out a scientific investigation.
He asked him to gather knowledge from Indian doctors to see if they could cure the great maladies existing in the Old Continent. Francisco Hernandez thoroughly investigated everything he saw; he asked questions, smelled, tasted, and took back to Spain many of the Indian remedies. All this information is rendered in Historia Natural de la Nueva España. Those books are historical records of everything that existed in la Nueva España, from food to medicine.
As regards corn or maize, the conquistadores did not believe that it was a good nourishment because they thought wheat was a more complete grain. They said that, being more intelligent and in order to improve the Indian race, it would be better if they tried to convince the Mesoamerican people to plant wheat instead of corn.
However, due to the bond GOD-CORN-MAN, this never occurred. They did manage to eliminate amaranto leading to the disappearance of some native dishes and to malnutrition among those who had consumed it. Anyone interested in this last topic can look for a book by Jeffrey M. Pilcher titled ¡Vivan los tamales! La comida y la construcción de la identidad mexicana.
Thanks to corn and our millenary traditions, since 2010, Mexican traditional cuisine is now regarded as Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial de la Humanidad (Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity). The United Nations considers the combination of farming and culinary techniques in our gastronomy extraordinary and believe it should be forever protected and treasured. Nothing more and nothing less!
Mexican cuisine has become one of the most popular cuisines world-wide. Why do you think people have fallen in love with Mexican cuisine?
Our cuisine is very diverse, delicious, and full of color and identity. Also, Mexican chefs have obtained international recognition and our cuisine is surrounded by history and inherited traditions that continue to be passed on to new generations.
Its good nutrition is another advantage Mexican food offers. It is made of natural products. It can be very simple yet elegant. The most basic diet of some Mexicans is made of corn, beans, and chili – a very complete and delicious meal.
Have you heard of the divine trio? It is related to the nutritional bond made up of corn, chili and beans. The three were the main source of nutrition for the ancient Indians and still remains the main source for many Mexicans.
Why divine trio? Corn, just like other cereals, supplies carbohydrates and calories that turn into energy. It also supplies proteins, although some of the amino acids in these sometimes alter its digestion.
Beans are a leguminous, which supply better quality amino acids; sometimes they also have a low absorption. Chili is not only a delicious fruit, rich in vitamins (a big source of vitamin C), but it also provokes very good digestibility of proteins from corn and beans. The trio is not: corn or maize + beans + chili but corn or maize + frijol x chili.
Chili isn’t only a complement, but a nutritional multiplier.
How does authentic Mexican food differ from the Mexican food served internationally?
There are three reasons why it’s different from the one served internationally:
- Ingredients are not easy to find in every place where there are Mexican restaurants
- Lack of preparation techniques;
- Food, outside its environment, looses authenticity and emotional bondage
Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
Adobada (marinated) pork leg, green pipian (pumpkin seed salsa) chicken, and every Mexican antojito (sopes, thick tortillas with topping; chalupas, tortillas with beans, meat, and salsa on top; tlacoyos, an oval shaped pre-Hispanic dish made of masa with beans, cheese or chicharron, pork rind inside; tamales; tostadas, fried tortilla with topping).
Tortilla soup, bean soup with nopal (cactus), mole de olla (pot mole); Tampiqueña meat (one piece of meat, red rice, Poblano pepper rajas,slices, with cream; mole enchilada, and guacamole). Fideo seco (like angel hair pasta with tomato), pork with verdolagas (purslane), beans with pork, amongst many more.
What are the top Mexican dishes everyone needs to try out when visiting Mexico?
I think that it is very difficult to mention just a few dishes because Mexico is a large country and its gastronomy likewise.
With one of the principal elements of our cuisine, corn or maize (tortilla; chilaquiles, fried corn tortilla pieces simmered with salsa;corn cobs; huitlacoche, corn mushroom; pinole, roasted ground maize made into a beverage; tamales, maize cakes stuffed with minced meat; tacos, and many other foods), I can give you just an example about the variety of Mexico’s gastronomy. Also, depending on which city, state, or village you visit, there will be culinary jewels.
Only in Oaxaca there are seven different types of moles (traditional sauce that contains fruit, chili pepper, nuts, and spices). I cannot say which one is better.
In Veracruz, fish, seafood, and arroz a la tumbada (rice with seafood and tomato) are amazing.
In Yucatan the pibil (underground cooked) pork, the lechon (pig), and the papatzules (like enchiladas with sesame seed salsa, onion, and Habanero chili), are mesmerizing.
In Michoacan the corundas (similar to tamales) and the uchepos (tamales) are delicious.
In Puebla, the mole; the Nogada chilis(stuffed and covered with Castilla walnut sauce), and the street chalupas are a national landmark.
In Ensenada the fish tacos and lobster with bean sauce are a real temptation.
Last but not least, Queretaro is well known for its escamoles (the larvae of ants) and its xoconostle (cactus candy). I could continue forever and ever.
Tell us about your Traveling Spoon experience. What do you enjoy most about it?
I have a lot of fun while cooking and teaching is even more enjoyable. What I most enjoy from working at Traveling Spoon is having contact with foreigners to whom I can transmit my love for Mexico and, obviously, of our cuisine. Eating is not only a physiological necessity but is also part of the culture of our nation.
I like to teach them the difference between real Mexican cooking and what they know and have tried in other places, believing that that is Mexican cooking. All the people I’ve had the pleasure to meet have shown great interest in Mexican history, our cuisine, and our techniques. This has been a very fulfilling and enjoyable experience!
If you are also working as a professional chef, we would love to hear a bit about that as well.
Besides teaching, I have a catering business with two partners, La Divina Garza. We mainly work for film productions, photo shootings, fashion magazines, advertising campaigns, and executive offices. My working scope is wide but what I most enjoy is to teach.
Lime Soup Recipe by Lucia de la Barra
Check out the delicious lime soup recipe provided by Lucia de la Barra for Chef’s Pencil.