Arts, Culture & Media

If you like enchiladas con mole, give thanks to Mexico’s convent kitchens

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation


Chef Barbara Sibley of La Palapa Cocina Mexicana in New York


Herminio Torres

Barbara Sibley grew up in Mexico City, the child of expatriate Americans who fell in love with Mexico and decided to stay.

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Sibley's home was in Mexico City's San Ángel neighborhood, in the southwest of the city.

One of the local landmarks was a convent.

As a child, Sibley would go to the door of the convent and buy small bags of leftover host, the doughy, sweet white wafers used in the Catholic communion rite. "They would make the host in large sheets, like the size of a letter, and they would punch out the circles. At the convent you could buy large bags of the leftover edges."

And it was a very mysterious exchange: "You'd walk to the door of the convent, a gate would open, and a hand would come out with a plastic bag full of these bits."

Barbara Sibley still travels to Mexico City regularly — she thinks of it as home — but these days she runs a restaurant in New York City: La Palapa Cocina Mexicana. She's also co-author of the book "Antojitos: Festive and Flavorful Mexican Appetizers."

And she's developed a deep understanding of the roots of Mexican cuisine, including American favorites such as enchiladas and mole poblano.

It turns out that the kitchens of Mexico's convents were central to the development of those dishes, and many more.

"You start with the pre-Columbians, before the Spaniards came," Sibley explains. "When they came and colonized Mexico they needed a place for women, and the convents and monasteries were often placed along the roads; they were safe havens, as well as places where they were evangelizing and teaching the native Mexicans about Catholicism."

The convents grew into schools and cultural centers, and the kitchens became "more and more elaborate," culminating at the end of the Viceregal period — the late 1820s — with a recipe for chiles en nogada, one of the most important dishes in Mexican culinary history.

That recipe, developed at a covent, features poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, beef, and many sweets, both fruits and nuts. It's covered with a cheese and walnut cream (the nogada), and garnished with pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley.

Chiles en nogada was created at the beginning of Mexico's independence from Spain, and the dish proudly reflects the colors of the Mexican flag.

That kind of unification, in essence, represents the prime contribution of Mexico's convent kitchens, says Barbara Sibley. The kitchens were where the country's mestizaje or mixing, took place—ingredients and cultural traditions, both indigenous and imported, came together in the creation of extraordinary new flavors and dishes.

"The food that we think of as the food of Mexico," says Sibley, "really originated in the convents."

Chiles en Nogada (recipe by Barbara Sibley of La Palapa Cocina Mexicana, NYC)

Poblano Chiles Stuffed with Sweet and Savory Beef, Pine Nuts, Pineapple, Almonds, and Raisins with a Fresh Walnut Crema

  • Chiles en Nogada were invented in the convent of Santa Monica in Puebla around 1820 to celebrate the battle of Puebla which is Cinco de Mayo! At La Palapa I use a traditional recipe that dates from that time. Nogada is the Spanish word for walnuts.
  • The dish creates the colors of the Mexican flag: green, white, and red

Serves 6, makes 12 chiles

Roasting Chiles Poblanos

12 chiles poblanos

  1. Wash and dry chiles
  2. Roast chiles for about 10 to 15 minutes until the skin is blistered and charred all over. They can be roasted over a gas burner holding the chiles with tongs and turning them toward the flame to blister the skin. This can also be done on the grill. To char the chiles under the broiler place the chiles on a foil lined cookie sheet and roast about 4 inches from broiler. Turn the chiles so that they char evenly all around.
  3. Place the hot chiles in a bowl with plastic wrap or a moistened towel over it. Allow the chiles to steam in the bowl for about 15 minutes. Use your fingers or a small knife to peel off the skin. It should come off very easily.
  4. Be careful when cutting into hot chiles as the steam inside will be full of the capsaicin oil and can burn.

Cook's Note: Fresh Raw Chiles

When buying fresh chiles, choose ones that have firm flesh and no breaks or wrinkles on the skin. Most chiles are harvested with the stems on and this keeps the chiles fresh longer. They should be rinsed before use or washed with a food safe soap as some chiles are processed with wax, similar to apples, to extend their shelf life. Raw chiles should be stored in the refrigerator in a loosely closed plastic bag. Raw chiles have a tough skin and often they are roasted to remove the skin before using them for rajas, chile strips, or for stuffing. This is can be done best with Jalapeños or Poblanos.


1 lb beef ground

1 lb pork ground

4 cloves of garlic chopped

2 poblano chiles, deveined and chopped, about ½ a cup

1 medium onion chopped

4 plum tomatoes, chopped

2 bay leaf

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1 stick of Mexican cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

2 teaspoons salt

¼  cup corn oil

¼  cup candied pineapple

¼  cup raisins, plumped in sherry or warm water

¼  cup pine nuts

¼  cup almonds slivered

1/2 cup diced peeled apples

salt to taste

Sprigs Italian Parsley

½ cup pomegranate

  1. In a saute pan with the 3 tablespoons of oil saute the onion and garlic until soft over medium heat for about 3 minutes.
  2. Add the poblanos, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, cilantro, cinamon, and cloves and continue to cook until they release their juices. Add the pork and beef  and saute until the meat is cooked through.
  3. Add the pineapple, raisins, pine nuts, almonds and apples and continue to saute until the apples soften.
  4. Taste and add salt if needed.

Salsa Nogada

1 cup walnuts soaked/peeled

1/2 cup Queso Fresco

3 Tablespoons sherry

½ teaspoon sugar

1 cup heavy cream

  1. Soak the walnuts in 2 cups of warm water for 20 mintues. Remove from the water and remove as much is the brown skin that covers the walnuts as possible.
  2. In a food processor or blender place the walnuts, queso fresco, sherry and sugar. Blend until creamy.
  3. Whip the heavy cream as if to make whipped cream.
  4. Fold the walnut mixture and whipped cream together.

To serve the chiles place them on a platter with a dollop of the nogadaa parsley sprig and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.