Culinary innovations of Mexican nuns live on in historic kitchen

PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) — Every September, when Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain, people across the country feast on chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish of sweet poblano peppers stuffed with ground pork and fruit, smothered in a walnut sauce, parsley and pomegranate seeds. The recipe was invented in 1821 by a nun, whose name has been lost to history.

Agustín de Iturbide, general of the War of Independence, was the first to taste it. Coming from the state of Veracruz, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, he stopped in Puebla where the nuns of the convent of Santa Monica surprised him with the new creation. Its bright green, white, and red visually evoked the colors of Mexico’s national flag, and it remains synonymous with Independence Day celebrations today.

The story illustrates how cloistered nuns have left an anonymous but indelible mark on Mexican cuisine over the centuries, dreaming up some of the country’s most iconic dishes when called upon to serve special meals for important men while remaining anonymous and out of sight of the world.

“There were more than 300 recipes created by nuns, but it’s not very well known because it’s almost never mentioned,” said Jesús Vázquez, a historian at the Santa Rosa de Puebla art museum, housed in a former convent which was the birthplace of another. iconic delicacy: mole poblano.

A hundred years before Iturbide’s mouth watered nogada peppers, a Santa Rosa nun invented the thick brown mole sauce, which is often served over turkey or chicken. It takes days to make and has over 20 ingredients, from chocolate to peanuts to a variety of deveined chili peppers to reduce the spiciness.

“The most remarkable recipes come from nuns, and we ask ourselves: Why is that? Out of necessity,” said Sister Caridad, 36, speaking admiringly of her predecessors in Santa Monica who created chiles en nogada. “To seek their sustenance every day, God inspired them to invent such exquisite recipes.”

The Augustinian Recollects of Santa Monica and the Dominicans of Santa Rosa are cloistered nuns, which means that by taking the habit, they renounce outside life and will live in their convent until death. Historically, women obeyed vows of silence, obedience and austerity, sleeping on wooden planks instead of beds, wearing itchy woolen clothes and having no windows to see the outside world.

The nuns were not allowed to eat what they cooked, as fasting was supposed to purify their bodies and keep their lives austere. They couldn’t even see the faces of those trying their mole or chiles en nogada; they left the meals on a turntable with a door for them to be picked up from outside.

Vázquez, the historian, said these kitchens “were laboratories for gastronomic experiments” where nuns used simple tools and fused pre-Hispanic and European ingredients to create revolutionary new flavors.

In the case of chiles en nogada, at first the nuns would do something similar only with fruit, as a dessert, since meat was scarce. As pork became more widely available, they began to play around with the mix of sweet and savory, and it evolved into the dish that lives on to this day.

Chilies en nogada have long passed from the sole purview of Santa Monica nuns to be prepared and enjoyed throughout the country and abroad. Another convent in Puebla also makes it: every August, the 17 Carmelite nuns of La Soledad prepare around 250 nogada chiles for sale.

Year-round, however, La Soledad is best known for its nuns’ specialty, desserts. These include polvorones, crumbly cookies made from flour, butter and sugar; orange donuts; candies coated with anise; and the most popular crispy oval cookies known as campechanas. All are served to the public through a rotating privacy-preserving device similar to those used during the Iturbide era.

“This community is very traditional in terms of food,” said Sister Elizabeth, one of the residents of La Soledad. “All our cookies, chocolates and eggnogs are made by hand, without mixers, with pans, as we used to do in the old days.”

The campechanas are resold in a nearby cafe. Sister Elizabeth acknowledged some frustration that the nuns might not get the credit, but said she takes comfort in knowing that only they know the recipe and can make the golden confections.

The Augustinian Recollects settled at the end of the 17th century in the convent of Santa Monica in the colonial center of Puebla, one of 11 built in the city. Under laws separating church and state, the nuns left this site in 1934 and now reside in a modest building nearby with yellow walls and a green garden. The 20 women who live there dedicate all of their waking hours, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., to surrender to God.

Sister Caridad said the nuns fit in like family and come to share a common heritage. There’s no need for recipe books, she added – their culinary secrets are passed down from generation to generation.

Eighteen years of confinement have not been easy, but she is proud of monastic life.

“Because of my sacrifices, I may not have certain satisfactions in this world,” she said. “But I know that one day God will provide them to us because of what we have done in this cloister, in this house where we were hidden, for all the good that we have done for humanity.”

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