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Mastering tortillas in a cooking class in Mexico

Photo by Rick and Mimi Steadman

The tortilla I’d just made looked perfect … until it disintegrated into a pathetic little pile of rags. I’d tried to follow Lily Rivera’s directions, carefully flattening a ball of masa in a small hand press lined with plastic wrap. But when I attempted to peel it off, something went terribly wrong. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

My husband, Rick, and I were preparing traditional Mexican dishes with Lily during a cooking class in her bright and colorful Tulum kitchen. My tortilla-challenged moment only served to increase the fun.

Located 85 miles south of Cancún and just beyond the tidal wave of tourism that has swept down the Yucatán’s Caribbean coast, Tulum draws throngs of visitors to the spectacular 13th-century Mayan ruins on the outskirts of town. Yet Tulum itself remains an authentic pueblo with simple taquerias, intimate restaurants, and low-rise hotels. Lily’s gaily decorated house—“Look for the pink and green porch, and a tree strung with lights”—was easy to spot in a modest neighborhood off the main road. 

Wearing a flowing white skirt and traditional black blouse embroidered with red flowers, she welcomed us with a broad smile. Her ebony hair pulled straight back and up, she looked more like a dancer than a cook. She is, in fact, a diver, and worked as a scuba guide when she moved to Tulum from her native Mexico City more than two decades ago. But she’s also a lifelong cook: “I was raised in my grandmother’s kitchen,” she told us. “I love sharing my heritage.” Encouraged by the rave reviews her food always received, she switched careers and began offering classes in her home. 

Traditional dishes simmering atop Lily’s stove. | Photo by Rick and Mimi Steadman

Traditional dishes simmering atop Lily’s stove. | Photo by Rick and Mimi Steadman

Sip and savor

We started with a mescal tasting. Filling three thimble-sized pottery cups, Lily advised us to taste slowly, to savor the sweetness of the agave first, then the smokiness, and finally the warmth. When we clinked our cups together, she fixed her dark eyes on me. “If you don’t look the other person in the eye,” she warned, “you’ll have seven years of bad sex.” I laughed, but made sure to return her gaze.

Tying on our aprons, we tackled the evening’s menu: sopa tarasca, a thick tomato-and-black-bean soup; tiras de res en salsa pasilla, a deeply flavorful beef-and-chile stew; Mexican rice; quesadilla crescents oozing with Oaxaca cheese; fresh red and green salsas; and much more. My head spun as we multitasked, blending tomatoes and cilantro, softening dried chiles in boiling water, stuffing plantain-pocket molotes with refried beans, and grinding a combination of thyme, black peppercorns, cloves, and cumin with a volcanic-rock pestle and mortar called a molcajete.

Tempting aromas rose from the terra-cotta pots crowding the stovetop. While they simmered, we snacked on chile-dusted mango jellies (“We combined sweet and spicy-hot long before it was trendy,” Lily said) and dipped tortilla chips into a Mayan tomato-pumpkinseed purée. We also downed copious amounts of agua fresca di jamaica, a claret-colored, hibiscus-flavored  refresher that reminded me of cranberry juice, and horchata, a cinnamony rice-milk drink.

Then it was time to make tortillas. “The masa should feel like Play-Doh,” Lily explained as she shaped the moistened blue cornmeal into a golf ball–sized sphere and closed it inside the plastic wrap–lined press. Reopening the press revealed a perfectly round tortilla. In one smooth motion, she peeled it off and placed it on the hot, dry comal, or griddle.

You may also like: The best things to do along the Riviera Maya

Practice makes perfect

My skill with the press improved with repetition, but another challenge lay ahead. Watching the tortillas brown, I noticed that Lily’s inflated slightly as the moisture inside escaped. Mine, in contrast, were flat as sad little pancakes. Lily smiled encouragingly, but then added, “My grandmother always said that when a girl can make tortillas that puff up, she is ready to be married.”

As we dug into the feast at the kitchen table, I looked across at Rick. Thank goodness, I thought, I didn’t have to pass the puffed-tortilla test before marriage. Even so, I’ll be working on my tortillas. I think Lily’s grandmother would approve.

Tulum’s markets yield a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. | Photo by Rick and Mimi Steadman

Tulum’s markets yield a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. | Photo by Rick and Mimi Steadman

If you go

Rivera's Kitchen Tulum offers midday and evening classes (in English) for up to 10 people (a few more if they come as a group). Classes are scheduled for three hours, but we found that Lily isn’t a clock-watcher.

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