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Mexican nuns’ culinary innovations live on in legendary cuisine

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

Agustín de Iturbide, a general in the War of Independence, was the first to taste one. From the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, he made a stop in Puebla where the nuns of the Santa Monica Monastery surprised him with the new creation. The vibrant green, white, and red were visually reminiscent of the colors of Mexico’s national flag, and it remains synonymous with Independence Day celebrations today.

The story illustrates how nuns through the ages left an anonymous but indelible imprint on Mexican cuisine, concocting some of the country’s most iconic dishes when called upon to serve special meals for important men, while nameless and out of sight. remained of the world.

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

A hundred years before Iturbide’s mouth was watering with chili en nogada, a nun in Santa Rosa invented the thick brown mole sauce often served over turkey or chicken. It takes days to prepare and contains over 20 ingredients, from chocolate to peanuts to a variety of chilies designed to reduce spiciness.

“The most notable recipes are from nuns, and we wonder why is that? Out of necessity,” said Sister Caridad, 36, admiring her predecessors in Santa Monica, who made chiles en nogada. “To seek food every day, God inspired them to invent such exquisite recipes.”

The Order of Augustinian Recollects in Santa Monica and the Dominicans of Santa Rosa are nuns in monasteries, meaning that by taking the habit, they renounce the outdoors and will live in their convent until their death. Historically, the women obeyed vows of silence, obedience and frugality, slept on wooden planks instead of beds, wore itchy woolen clothes, and had no windows through which to see the outside world.

The nuns were not allowed to eat what they cooked, because fasting was supposed to purify their bodies and keep their lives frugal. Nor could they see the faces of those who tried their mole or chili en nogada; they left the meals on a revolving table with a door so they could be picked up from outside.

Historian Vázquez said those kitchens were “laboratories of 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, the nuns initially made something similar using only fruit for dessert, as meat was scarce. When pork became more widely available, they started playing with mixing sweet and savory, evolving into the dish that stands up to this day.

Chiles en nogada have long since ceased to be reserved for the nuns of Santa Monica to be prepared and savored across the country and abroad. Another monastery in Puebla also makes them: each August, the 17 Carmelite nuns of La Soledad prepare about 250 chiles en nogada to sell.

However, all year round, La Soledad is best known for the nuns’ specialty, desserts. Those include polvorones, crumbly biscuits made from flour, butter and sugar; orange donuts; aniseed candies; and the most popular, crunchy oval cookies known as campechanas. All are served to the public through a rotating device that maintains privacy, similar to the ones used in Iturbide’s time.

“This community is very traditional in terms of gastronomy,” said Sister Elizabeth, one of the residents of La Soledad. “All our biscuits, chocolates and eggnog are made by hand, without mixers, with saucepans, as was done in the old days.”

The campechanas are resold at a nearby coffee shop. Sister Elizabeth acknowledged some frustration at the thought 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 treats.

The Augustinian Recollects settled in the Santa Monica Convent in the colonial center of Puebla in the late 17th century, one of 11 built in the city. As part of laws separating church and state, the nuns left that place in 1934 and now live in a modest building nearby with yellow walls and a green yard. The 20 women who live there devote all their waking hours, from 6am to 10pm, to surrender to God.

Sister Caridad said the nuns are becoming integrated as a family and sharing a common heritage. No recipe books are needed, she added — their culinary secrets are passed down from generation to generation.

Eighteen years of incarceration was not easy, but she is proud of the monastic life.

“Because of my sacrifices, I may not have any satisfaction in this world,” she said. “But I know God will give it to us one day because of what we’ve done in this monastery, in this house where we were hidden, for how much good we’ve done for humanity.”

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UK Time News religious coverage is supported by the UKTN’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The UKTN is solely responsible for this content.

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