After eating a particularly lively chili, I go into paralysis, my left hand withering as if struck by lightning. As I begin to pray, the chef demonstrates to the cooking class what’s happening to my sphincter by slowly clenching his hand into a fist. In my hallucinatory state, hot sauce blooms into my brain like a squid releasing ink.
Mike Meets the Pepper
I’m at The Little Mexican Cooking School in the village of Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun. Through a haze, I see the chef’s fist. It’s wearing red lipstick, and as the thumb moves up and down like a lower lip, it begins to talk in a Mexican accent, as if someone has pulled the plug on a vinyl record player: “Ayyye, I don’ feel so gooood.”
This all happened in a half-second flash after I took my first bite of a cracker I’d loaded with a plutonium-like spoonful of habenero chili sauce. Before I snapped back to reality, it ricocheted from my tongue to my rectum to my brain, short-circuiting the gringo pinball machine that is my body and making my synapses explode like tiny firecrackers, until I hit TILT and my eyes burned with the shine-on-you-crazy-diamond knowledge of a man who has returned from long days in the desert and lived to tell about it, if only he could remember. I burst into tears, my eyes spinning like fire sprinklers.
Damn, I thought, that’s some fine chili sauce!
Cooking with Heat
My Spanish is terrible, my cooking worse. I tend to exaggerate events, they say. Perhaps I was the only one in the class who felt the full-on pow of the habanero chili and its awesome powers of hippocampus-altering persuasion. Here, Chef Pablo Lopez Espinosa de los Menteros is involved in some weird culinary magic.
“We want it nice and blistered,” he says, roasting a chili on the open flame of a gas stove while nine of us, who have come to discover the secrets of Mexican cooking, lean on our elbows and strain to catch the scent of what, in the chef’s hands, will soon become an edible form of dynamite.
Menteros is at the front of the class, wiry in his dove-white chef’s jacket. He has short dark hair, a black goatee and black-framed glasses. “I like to teach because I can impart the truth,” he says.
Watching this Carlos Castaneda-like wizard work his tasty alchemy takes me back to chemistry class, when Mr. Campbell passed the blue flame of a Bunsen burner underneath a test tube until it glowed eerily and I held my breath, waiting for an explosion.
The Secret to Mexican Cooking
The habanero chili pepper starts out green and can turn orange and red as it matures, normally growing to no more than six centimetres. Some 1,500 tons of habaneros are harvested each year in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Seated next to me is another guy named Mike. Like me, he is wearing an orange shirt. Like me, he is from Calgary. I fail to heed the warnings. To see one’s own doppelganger is an omen of death.
When everyone was sampling the sauces and salsas, my twin took a big dip of the habenero and said: “Hmm, it’s nice and warm.” I stepped up and ladled a big spoonful because, hey, I like warm.
Afterwards, when I was gurgling like a fish out of water, my eyes rolling back, I learned Doppelganger Mike is a skilled paramedic.
In less than a day, Menteros taught us how to make Ceviche Riviera Maya (fresh morsels of fish marinated with lime, jalapeño, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, cucumber and avocado), as well as salsas, and something more. I learned a secret to Mexican cooking and, perhaps, to a long life: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
A Recipe from the Little Mexican Cooking School
Chef Pablo Lopez Espinosa de los Menteros, from The Little Mexican Cooking School, teaches you how to pick out and prepare a jicama with a little salt lime and chile powder for a simply delightful dish.