One way to explore a city is through its food. In Mexico City, Graciela Montaño, left, leads Liz Elliot on a tour of a traditional open-air market as part of an Aura Club de Maridaje tour.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Food-focused tour guide Graciela Montaño, left, takes Liz Elliot through a tianguis, or traditional open-air market.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A street musician performs at a tianguis, a traditional open-air market, in Mexico City.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
After picking up ingredients at an open-air market, Graciela Montaño, left, instructs Liz Elliot in preparation. The one-on-one cooking experience is offered through Montaño’s Aura Club de Maridaje.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Graciela Montaño, left, and Liz Elliot taste-test a meal in progress in an Aura Club de Maridaje cooking class in Mexico City.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Graciela Montaño, left, instructs Liz Elliot in traditional meal preparation in a Mexico City cooking class.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
As part of an Aura Club de Maridaje class, instructor Graciela Montaño, right, and Liz Elliot prepare a meal.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Instructor and student converse over meal ingredients.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Cooking instructor Graciela Montaño, left, talks with client Liz Elliot.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Instructor Graciela Montaño, left, and Liz Elliot prepare to enjoy the meal they prepared in an Aura Club de Maridaje class in Mexico City.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Mexico City(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The sky clears after rainfall in Mexico City.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Food is an integral part of any trip to Mexico. On my November visit to Mexico’s capital, I shunned the nearest taquería in favor of a more scholarly approach to satisfy my culinary hedonism.
That meant hiring Graciela Montaño. Her résumé includes hosting a public TV cooking show in Mexico City and running Aura Club de Maridaje, which is one of a few local businesses that offer food-themed tours and cooking classes.
She promised just what I wanted: a tour both entertaining and enlightening. We would visit a local market, gather fresh ingredients, then create a traditional Mexican dish from scratch.
We began our day at a bakery in the fashionable neighborhood of Condesa, where Montaño explained the mélange of native and European influences that have begotten the panes dulces and other baked goods famed throughout North America’s southern regions.
Our next stop, the Condesa tianguis, doesn’t show up on TripAdvisor’s “things to do” list for the Mexican capital, but it should. The tianguis, or open-air market, is a weekly Tuesday tradition in the neighborhood, and its offerings are as diverse as fruity agua fresca drinks and hearty chocolate moles ground by a woman who has sold them at the tianguis for four decades.
We negotiated our way through the distractions of vendors hawking exotic tropical fruits and sampled traditional Mexican corn (much starchier than its selectively bred American sibling), heavily seasoned with chili.
For an American, it was an interesting experience buying pork from a vendor who diced it on a well-worn, unfinished block of wood in the 75-degree heat of late morning. Naturally, it was our last item after procuring corn masa to make tortillas and achiote (sometimes called annatto) paste to flavor the pork.
We soon arrived at Montaño’s kitchen in the Anzures neighborhood. After a bracing shot of mezcal, we set to work. This was the first time a tour guide has handed me an expensive chef’s knife and asked me to dice an onion.
Montaño guided me in the subtle art of dropping pressed masa on a griddle to produce a tortilla done enough to finely crack its edge while keeping the interior soft enough to caress the pork, chicken or carne asada that then becomes a taco. She limits her classes to one student at a time, allowing me ample opportunity to practice my technique.
A heavenly smell soon emanated as the crimson, achiote-slathered pork met the searing heat of the skillet.
At last, we carried the sacrificial pig and placed it on a table resplendent with the proper accompaniments for tacos al pastor: minced onion, cilantro, limes and diced pineapple.
Montaño produced a bottle of red wine from the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California’s Napa Valley, to pair with the pork, explaining that the maridaje in Aura Club de Maridaje signified the marriage of different flavors that merge to create a fine meal.
After that experience, it was a marriage to which I’m wholly committed.
Info: Aura Club de Maridaje, www.aurawclub.com (in Spanish and English). Classes from $89.